Continuous Improvement – United States
A legacy of leadership continues
The U.S. cotton industry has been committed to continuous improvement in sustainability for decades. The numbers over time show substantial progress resulting from the dedicated efforts made by cotton growers, researchers and industry organizations across every cotton-producing state.
In 2022, U.S. cotton growers directly invested more than $15 million dollars in agricultural and environmental research designed to improve the production process. This research, which has often focused on new technologies and sustainable best practices, has been conducted in collaboration with more than 50 research institutions in 25 states.
The change in these key indicators between 1980 and 2020 show the industry’s commitment to continuous improvement:
How U.S. cotton drives improvements
Precision agriculture and evolving technologies
Modern technologies known collectively by the term “precision agriculture” help growers more accurately detect crop needs so they can use resources – including fertilizer, pesticide and water – much more efficiently. These tools allow consultants and growers to collect information about how conditions vary within a field (e.g., changes in soil type, elevation) and then manage the crop accordingly. Examples of such technologies include the following:
- Sensors on the cotton picker that record how much each area of the field produced.
- Soil sensors used to create maps of how fertilizer or irrigation requirements vary.
- Irrigation-scheduling technologies help growers more effectively choose when and where to irrigate.
U.S. cotton growers have widely adopted precision agriculture — from 2001 to 2015, the percentage of growers using at least one precision technology grew from 23% to 86%.2 This timeframe overlaps with significant advancements in the efficiency of many resources and inputs, including overall land use efficiency. Researchers continue to push precision technologies forward for further achievements. Smaller, autonomous planting and harvesting equipment is the next frontier in technology, while the next big focus in outreach involves educating more growers on the use of soil sensors to schedule irrigation based on real-time data.
Multi-benefit best practices
In addition to precision agriculture technologies, U.S. cotton growers have increasingly implemented sustainable best practices that impact more than one key environmental indicator at a time.
For example, conservation tillage and no-till practices help reduce on-farm energy use because they decrease the use of heavy equipment. They also reduce soil loss and increase soil health – which in turn can help farmers decrease fertilizer requirements and help cotton plants tolerate more stressful conditions, like droughts. Cover crops are another important practice that provide an array of benefits. They contribute to improvements in soil health and conservation while also helping suppress weeds and even decreasing the number of required herbicide applications.
Research continues to discover the more effective ways to implement these practices on-farm in the various cotton-growing regions of the U.S.
A prime example of cross-industry collaboration is Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. Field to Market brings together a diverse group of grower organizations, agribusinesses, retail companies, conservation groups and universities. These groups are focused on promoting, defining and measuring the sustainability of food, fiber and fuel production.
Field to Market provides collaborative leadership that is engaged in cross-industry dialogue, grounded in science, and open to the full range of technology choices. Field to Market publishes a National Indicators Report on a regular basis to analyze cotton sustainability trends – as well as those for other U.S. commodity crops – over time at a national scale.
U.S. cotton producers were a founding member of the alliance via early membership of National Cotton Council and Cotton Incorporated, and cotton growers have access to tools created by Field to Market to measure (and improve) environmental indicators.
Innovative tools – Fieldprint® Calculator
Field to Market’s Fieldprint Calculator helps U.S. growers identify areas for improvement on their farms. Through this tool, they can enter data on their specific production practices for any field on their farm and see how they compare according to national, state and county averages. The tool also helps downstream companies get a clearer picture of their supply chain.
As growers review their results, they can see which aspects of their operation have the largest impact on a number of outcome-based metrics: land use, soil conservation, soil health (reflected by soil carbon status), irrigation water use efficiency, water quality, biodiversity, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Scenario analysis can be performed to determine how different management decisions would impact individual key indicators individually and collectively.
Building a Better Future – Setting Goals for Cotton Sustainability
U.S. cotton agriculture has come a long way in the past 40 years. But this is just the beginning. In 2017, the U.S. cotton industry set sustainability goals grounded in science to further improve U.S. cotton production for the next ten years and lay the groundwork for the next 30 years of productivity, profitability and sustainability.
The target areas and goals were established using science-based evaluations, including key performance indicators (KPIs) for producing each pound of cotton and pathways to achieve them.
- Increase Soil Carbon by 30%
- Increase Land Use Efficiency by 13%
- Decrease Soil Loss per Acre by 50%
- Increase Irrigation Water Use Efficiency by 18%
- Decrease Energy Use by 15%
- Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 39%
These goals, determined by a U.S. cotton sustainability task force from seven segments of the supply chain, are pushing the frontier of sustainability and leading the worldwide effort in sustainable cotton production. The entire U.S. industry is proud to continue improving to meet these goals.
Learn more about the research being conducted in these impact areas. Get started with Water Stewardship, then read through our updated, U.S.-focused Land & Soil, Carbon Footprint, Energy, Pest Management, and Biodiversity pages.
1 All stats in this list are pulled from the following: Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. (2021.) Environmental Outcomes from On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States. National Indicators Report, fourth edition.
2 Cotton Incorporated. (2015.) 2015 Cotton Natural Resource Survey Executive Summary Report. Accessed Sept. 9, 2022