Cotton LEADS

Pest Management – United States

Integrated and effective cotton pesticides

In the United States, over 100 types of pests attack cotton. If these pests are left unmanaged, crops are badly damaged, resulting in major yield and quality losses. Herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are absolutely necessary for an abundant and affordable supply of cotton fiber. That said, U.S. growers, in a trend also seen around the world, are making progress in more sustainable pest management.

Integrated pest management strategies, biotechnology and the success of the boll weevil program have resulted in a 50% reduction in the number of insecticide applications since the late 1980s. According to a survey of U.S. cotton growers in 2008, 44% of U.S. cotton farms had fields that required no foliar insecticides, and nearly one-third of U.S. cotton acreage required absolutely no insecticide applications at all.

Only about 5.17 grams of total pesticides are applied per kilogram of U.S. cotton produced on average. Many of the cotton pesticides still used target specific pests, leaving beneficial species unharmed and allowing diverse insect species to thrive and fill their natural roles in the ecosystem (Carpenter et al., 2002; Head et al., 2005; Naranjo, 2005a; 2005b).

Average Number of Insecticide Applications Made to U.S. Cotton


Integrated pest management

Integrated pest management (IPM) is defined as “the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep cotton pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment. IPM emphasizes the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to Insegro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms” (International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides adopted by FAO in 2002).

Before turning to synthetic cotton pesticides, many growers in the U.S. and around the world are turning to combinations of cultural practices, pest monitoring, computer-aided management systems, biological control, precision agriculture and biotechnology. According to a 2005 USDA survey, insect pest monitoring is used on 94% of U.S. cotton acreage and weed monitoring on 89% (USDA, 2006).

IPM also helps growers address the threat of herbicide resistant weeds. Since 2008, producers have taken advantage of new technologies to be more precise and efficient in their weed control applications, with 92% reporting at least one upgrade in the last 10 years, including GPS-based swath control, guidance systems and real-time flow control.


Transgenic technology and herbicide tolerance

Transgenic technology has proven particularly effective in helping growers reduce cotton pesticide application. The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), a body that assists governments in fostering a healthy world cotton economy, reported, “Indirect significant benefits of the [transgenic] technology include improved populations of beneficial insects and wildlife in cotton fields, reduced pesticides runoff, and improved farm worker and neighbor safety as well as soil-related environmental improvements through changed tillage practices with herbicide tolerant varieties” (ICAC, 2004).

Herbicide tolerance technology has played an important role in the move away from conventional tillage to conservation tillage production systems. When cotton is safe from the effects of herbicide, the plant cover growing between rows can be sprayed rather than tilled. This change in production system has reduced levels of greenhouse gas emissions from reduced tractor fuel use and facilitated soil carbon sequestration. Conservation tillage also conserves topsoil, preserves soil moisture and reduces runoff. Another benefit of herbicide tolerant technology is an improvement in water quality through the use of more benign herbicides that rapidly dissipate (Carpenter et al., 2002).

Cotton pesticides management and regulation

Scientists at Cornell University derived the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) to help guide growers and regulators in pesticide management. This equation incorporates toxicity and environmental exposure data to determine the environmental footprint of particular pesticides and application practices used on particular crops.

Growers must comply with many regulations to protect the safety of farm workers, consumers and the environment. Cotton is regulated as a food crop since cottonseed oil, meal and other by-products are used in human and animal foodstuffs. This involves strict rules and FDA and EPA regulations for approval, labeling and application of all chemicals and the use of genetically modified varieties.

Federal laws that impact cotton pesticide use in the United States include:

  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)
  • Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA )
  • Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)
  • Clean Air Act (CAA)
  • Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
  • Endangered Species Act (ESA)
  • Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA)

Explore the research and resources we’ve pulled this information from.