Biodiversity – United States
Cultivating healthy yields – and ecosystems
Cotton fields are part of a vast landscape of crops, forest, native grassland and wetlands that are home to a diverse population of large and small animals, insects, plants and microflora. This great variety of living organisms is referred to as “biodiversity.” Supporting biodiverse, healthy ecosystems on and around the farm is a high priority for U.S. cotton farming families and the rural communities in which they live.
Agricultural practices that enhance wildlife habitat also help farmers improve nutrient cycling, erosion control, pollinator services and water infiltration. This is also true in reverse: practices that improve soil health, prevent erosion, and improve water use efficiency or water quality have a positive effect on biodiversity.
The more that farmers understand the interconnection between their fields and the larger landscape, the more potential there is to promote biodiversity in ways that enrich both the ecosystem and the cotton production system.
Practices that promote biodiversity
In the face of declining populations of beneficial insects, birds and other species, sustainable agriculture practices can help create and preserve important habitats. For example, farmers plant strips of vegetation called “riparian buffers” around waterways to protect water quality – thereby supporting aquatic species – while also providing habitat for birds and terrestrial species. Actively managing field borders with a prescribed plant species mix along fence and wood edges is another way to not only provide benefits for pollinators and other wildlife but also improve per acre yields.1 The 2021 National Indicators Report from Field to Market also cites the benefits of practicing no-till vs. conventional tillage2 for nesting birds.
Biodiversity comes in all sizes. Reduced tillage, cover crops, and other best practices that U.S. cotton growers use to reduce soil erosion and increase soil health promote a diverse soil microbiome. The richer assortment of tiny creatures living in the soil improves nutrient cycling and efficiency, which ultimately helps growers optimize their use of fertilizers while helping their cotton plants flourish.
Most U.S cotton growers also implement Integrated Pest Management, an environmentally and economically sensitive strategy for reducing damage from pests. Using the IPM framework of “prevent, avoid, monitor, suppress” enables growers to only apply pesticides when necessary. A 2017 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) found that IPM can also “reduce the risk of exposing pollinators” to pesticides.3 To further protect crops and pollinators together, growers and beekeepers in the U.S. have embraced efforts to develop and implement state-specific pollinator protection plans, known as Managed Pollinator Protection Plans (MP3s). These MP3s are designed to minimize potential pesticide exposure to bees at and beyond the site of the application.4
NGO and government resources for on-farm progress
NGOs are developing and honing tools that enable the industry to better understand biodiversity trends and make farm management decisions that create biodiversity improvement. Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is one such leading NGO. Field to Market’s Fieldprint® Platform enables farmers to evaluate their own progress using the Habitat Potential Index (HPI), a biodiversity metric that “scores the potential for a given farm to provide wildlife habitat on land or in the water.”5
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also provides both technical and financial support to growers who adopt practices that enhance biodiversity on the farm. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) are two examples of NRCS programs designed to incentivize biodiversity enhancements on the farm. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) incentivizes growers to remove arable land from production to enhance soil retention and health, improve water quality and restore wildlife habitat. Cotton growers around the nation participate in these programs.
In 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its first comprehensive workplan to address the decades-old challenge of balancing wildlife protection and responsible pesticide use. The plan establishes overall strategies and dozens of actions to adopt those protections while providing farmers, public health authorities and others with access to necessary crop protection products.
Precision agriculture, precision conservation
Precision agriculture involves the use of tools that sense plant needs and then deliver water, nutrients or pesticides only where (and when) those inputs are needed. Precision agriculture has helped U.S. cotton growers cut down on inputs while maintaining healthy plants.
The farm-specific and even field-specific data that results from precision agriculture enables growers to identify underperforming areas of their land as well as conservation opportunities. Researchers, industry organizations and nonprofits like Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever have been helping growers evaluate whether those low-performing areas could better serve the farm and the environment as wildlife habitat enrolled in conservation programs.
The U.S. cotton industry is helping lead the way into this new field of precision conservation. Cotton Incorporated and Mississippi State University researchers are collaborating on a project titled “Quantifying Overlap in Conservation and Economic Opportunities in Mississippi Cotton Production.” This joint effort has resulted in the creation of the MSU Precision Conservation Tool, a decision-support software that leverages precision ag data to identify exact locations where conservation practices are the most economically beneficial. The tool puts precision conservation into more cotton growers’ hands and provides them with additional incentives for taking action to improve biodiversity.
Since 2019, Cotton Incorporated has successfully implemented a precision conservation program in collaboration with Quail Forever, the American Society of Agronomy and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The program originally focused on expanding wildlife habitat on Georgia cotton farms, and in 2022, the geographical scope expanded to include Texas and Alabama. Additional program collaborators, including the United Sorghum Board and BASF, have joined the effort.
The project aims to:
- Improve profitability and sustainability on working farms in the southern U.S., with a focus on landscapes supporting bobwhite quail, monarchs and cotton production
- Improve public awareness of Cotton Incorporated’s commitment and contribution to the environmental and economic sustainability of cotton production systems
- Increase implementation of conservation practices by cotton growers through strategic conservation practice adoption and increased on-farm profitability
- Drive a wider adoption of conservation practices and contributions from a broader network of collaborators, which will support biodiversity in and around cotton agricultural landscapes
Stewardship for biodiversity
U.S. cotton growers pride themselves on stewarding their land for future generations. Supporting biodiversity is an important aspect of that – it is closely related to soil health, to water quality, beneficial insect populations, natural predators of harmful insects and much more.
Going forward, as precision conservation continues to gain ground, U.S. cotton farms should see additional advances in biodiversity improvement.
1 Milhollin, R., and Pierce, R. (2020.) Field Borders for Agronomic, Economic and Wildlife Benefits. Accessed Sept. 8, 2022
2 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.
3 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.
4 EPA. (n.d.). Policy Mitigating Acute Risk to Bees from Pesticide Products. Accessed Aug. 18, 2022
5 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.