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New National Report Demonstrates U.S. Cotton’s Environmental Progress, Opportunities

Every five years, Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture publishes its National Indicators Report (NIR). The latest edition has been released, and it continues to provide a key source of data, context and actionable insights for the U.S. cotton industry.

The peer-reviewed NIR analyzes sustainability trends across five key performance indicators (KPIs) for U.S. commodity crops, including cotton. The NIR takes the long view of American agriculture, helping the industry see how changes in practices and technologies over time have made a sustainable difference despite varying weather conditions and market factors.

The most recent report demonstrates cotton’s significant improvement in three of the five KPIs from 2010–2020 compared to the previous decade.

Irrigation water use:

The past decade of continued improvement in irrigation water use is part of the larger trend of cotton’s increasing water productivity over the past 40 years.

Cotton Incorporated has a multitude of research efforts focused on improving irrigation water use efficiency. These research projects have contributed to the past decade’s progress and will continue to prepare the industry for the challenges brought by droughts and other extreme weather events.

These research projects evaluate alternative water delivery systems such as subsurface drip irrigation and improved irrigation scheduling with soil moisture sensors. For example, Cotton Incorporated and Texas Tech University researchers are collaborating to test unmanned aerial system technologies for remote soil and crop monitoring that will optimize water efficiency.

Greenhouse gas emissions:

U.S. cotton showed strong improvement in the 10-year average compared to the previous decade for GHG emissions per pound of lint produced.

The Global Cotton LCA (Cotton Incorporated, 2017) shows that 60 percent of the overall global warming potential in the agriculture phase of cotton production is related to fertilizer production and use. Nitrogen fertilizer that isn’t used by the cotton plants escapes into the air as nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas. Any improvements made in nitrogen use efficiency can greatly reduce N2O emissions from the field and continue to lower the climate impacts of cotton production.

Because of fertilizer’s outsized impact on GHG emissions, Cotton Incorporated has launched a coordinated multi-state research initiative, encompassing 16 total research projects to evaluate opportunities for improving fertilizer management and nitrogen refinement.

Energy use:

Energy use is another area where U.S. growers showed improvement in the 10-year average as compared to the previous decade. Improvements in fertilizer use efficiency not only help reduce GHG emissions, but also have a significant impact on energy use per pound of cotton. This is due to fewer required passes from heavy equipment.

Cotton Incorporated is collaborating with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center to evaluate alternative fertilizer delivery methods to optimize application cost and fertilizer use efficiency. Applying all nutrients through liquid fertilization in spring or at planting near the root zone could create a major opportunity to further reduce the overall energy use of cotton production.

The 2021 NIR also demonstrates that there is room for improvement in land use and soil health. 

The report shows that the pace of the industry’s progress in land use and soil conservation has slowed over the past decade, likely because U.S. cotton began addressing the low-hanging fruit decades ago. In recent years, U.S. cotton turned its attention to more difficult, long-term challenges. Growers have also faced more consistent severe weather events and related hurdles.

The NIR results underscore the importance of improving soil health to build the cotton crop’s resilience to adverse weather events. Cotton fields with improved soil health can better utilize rain and irrigation water, enabling productivity even during prolonged periods of drought. Increasing resilience is a key strategy in improving the land use score as well.

To deliver on 2025 industry goals in land use and soil conservation, the U.S. cotton industry needs to increase its research and outreach efforts to accelerate adoption of best management practices that drive crop resilience. Cotton Incorporated is collaborating with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol and BCI on a project that uses split field trails to demonstrate how conventional production practices (conventional tillage without the use of cover crops) compare to a management strategy incorporating cover crops and greatly reduced tillage. The project will help to better understand — and communicate — best practices for improving soil health, soil conservation and sustainability.

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