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For US Cotton Growers, Sustainability Is the Goal and Synthetics the Enemy

While cotton is certainly caught up in the political trade drama playing out on the global stage, it doesn’t mean that growers around the world are fighting against each other.

Mark Messura, senior vice president for global supply chain marketing at Cotton Incorporated, explained that 77 countries produce cotton and more than 60 countries trade in the commodity. The U.S. is the third largest producer and the top exporter of cotton, shipping to more than 40 countries annually.

“So, the U.S. is squarely in the middle of world trade in cotton,” Messura told the audience at the United States Fashion Industry Association’s and American Import Shippers Association’s Apparel Importers Trade & Transportation Conference Thursday in New York.

“But there is something else unique, when it comes to sustainability of U.S. cotton,” he added. “U.S. cotton producers and the industry organizations for cotton continue to lead global cotton sustainability efforts. And they do that through continual improvement…through research, measurement and science…and most importantly, what we learn in the U.S. goes freely and openly to 77 countries and other industry organizations that are looking to advance and improve cotton.”

Messura said the reason the U.S. cotton industry shares such information and methods is that “cotton worldwide competes with synthetic fibers, not countries competing against each other for cotton production.”

The U.S. industry, he said, has a strong record of achievement in areas such as land use, soil loss or erosion control, water use and greenhouse gas reduction. The Field to Market program, a group of 166 organizations, comes together to look at the data and see if there has been improvement or regression.

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Messura noted that the industry has identified key areas of improvement by 2025. This includes land-use efficiency, reduction in soil loss, increasing irrigation efficiency, improved energy usage and increasing soil carbon.

The Cotton Leads program, born out of partnership between the Australian and U.S. cotton industries, connects textile manufacturers, brands and retailers with opportunities to support cotton growers’ sustainability efforts and to share data, resources and technologies to improve cotton around the world, he added.

Putting these sustainable methods into practice is Lacy Vardeman, a Texas cotton and beef producer, who revealed how she has incorporated many new technologies and means of growing and cultivating cotton on her farm.

Vardeman explained how she has transformed her cotton growing operation in myriad ways, so that “every year we become sustainable.” This includes a GPS-guided planter that saves energy, the planting of cover crops “so that none of our ground is ever exposed” and allows for moisture retention and less irrigation, and chemical use reduction—“we have sprayed any insecticides since the early 2000s,” she noted, including significant reduction in pesticide usage.

These methods are not only environmentally sound, Vardeman said, but also cut down on fuel consumption and costs of materials. She added that she does believe in using GMO-modified cotton seed because it can be engineered for the Texas climate and result in less water and chemical usage and create a better fiber for the mills.