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Cotton's sustainability and environmental footprint Headline

Sunday, November 28, 2010

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As I read many popular news articles, I learn that environmentalists do not like our U.S. crop production systems, our government farm programs, and in particular do not like cotton. By using mechanized equipment, chemicals and synthetic fertilizers U.S. producers are among the most efficient in the world. Compare our production system with the Chinese in which humans provide the labor. I will admit that the Chinese cotton is cleaner since it is all hand harvested.

Last month I had been invited to give a presentation for the Certified Crop Advisor?s Conference at the Delta Center held on November 22-23. My topic was ?Cotton?s Sustainability and Environmental Footprint.? I have been interested in this topic for a long time. My interest really grew when I had an opportunity to attend the 2010 Sustainable Cotton Summit held in Columbia on September 21-22.

I had learned about this conference through the University Announcements that come by e-mail. This conference was sponsored by the University of Missouri Textile and Apparel Management Program housed in the College of Human Environmental Sciences. Dr. Jung Ha-Brookshire was the coordinator of the summit which was made possible through the grant from Cotton Incorporated. This was an outstanding conference with emphasis on the production side and consumer preference.

During the summit, Dr. Janet Reed, associate director of environmental science and agriculture research gave a presentation entitled, ?Today?s Cotton and the Environment-What is Sustainability.? I was impressed with the material and I contacted her to get permission to use some of her information. She was very gracious and I was able to incorporate it into my presentation.

The definition of sustainability is three-fold with emphasis on social, environmental, and economic. For producers, if they can?t make a profit, then cotton is not sustainable, if the environment is destroyed, then, it is not sustainable. If the consumer is not happy with the product and doesn?t meet their needs, then it is not sustainable.

Environmentalists complain that cotton uses too many pesticides, land and water, energy, and impacts greenhouse gas emissions. However, if you look at the changes in the cotton industry, you will get a different picture of the progress.

In 2009, global cotton production used only 6.8 percent of the total pesticides. This compares with 27.9 percent of the pesticides used for fruits and vegetables. Consider that in the early 1900?s, dusting with lead arsenate used many pounds of this product per acre and used two products that were very harmful to the environment, lead and arsenic. Today we use ounces per acre of insecticides that are much more environmentally friendly.

Technological advances also reduced the use of foliar pesticides. The Boll Weevil Eradication Program has reduced insecticide use from 40 to 100 percent and has resulted in a yield increase of at least 10 percent. The data also shows that for every $1 invested by Missouri producers, there was a $5 return on their investment.

The use of the genetically engineered cotton varieties with the Bt gene has also decreased insecticide applications. This gene puts a toxin in the plant that will only affect moth pests and will not harm humans or beneficial insects. In 2008, 40 percent of U.S. cotton farms used no foliar insecticide applications.

Cotton's global water use is only 3 percent of all of agricultural water use. Cotton is one of the most drought resistant crops. In the U.S. 64 percent of our crop receives no irrigation with rainfall supplying its needs.

Cotton producers have worked hard to reduce soil loss because when soil is lost by erosion, their production potential is reduced. Two-thirds of U.S. producers use some form of conservation tillage. USDA data show that soil loss has decreased.

To look at cottons environmental footprint, Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is working to bring together a diverse group of grower organizations, agribusinesses, food companies, conservation groups, universities, and agency partners to focus on defining and measuring the sustainability of food and fiber production.

The data shows that substantial improvement has been made. For example, yield per acre has increased 31 percent since 1987. Land use per pound of cotton has decreased by 25 percent. Soil loss has decreased by 31 percent. Irrigation water use per pound of cotton has decreased by 49 percent. Energy use per pound of cotton has decreased by 66 percent.

There are more uses of cotton fiber and byproducts. I looked at the label on a bread package and saw that cottonseed fiber was one of the ingredients. Recycled cotton materials are being used for insulation and in packing.

Perhaps some of the greatest future uses of cotton will be in the field of nanotechnology. Cotton fibers can be coated with boron carbide nanoparticles and made stronger. Future uses could be in lighter weight bullet proof vests. Cotton is natural, renewable, recyclable, efficient and innovative.

University of Missouri Extension programs are open to all..

Dr. Michael R. Milam is an agronomy specialist and county program director with University of Missouri Extension in Dunklin County.

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