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What the Latest Cotton Research Means for Exports and the Environment

The latest in cotton research offers new insight into “climate-smart” agriculture, the environmental impacts of microfibers and Brazil’s growing role in the cotton economy.

Climate-smart agriculture in Azerbaijan

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported earlier this month that researchers and farmers in Azerbaijan were able to more than double their cotton yields after implementing climate-smart agricultural (CSA) practices based on nuclear and related techniques.

Conducted in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the pilot combined a new strain of cotton with CSA practices, including the use of N-15 fertilizer, so named for using the isotope nitrogen-15. The project saw yields increase from Azerbaijan’s average of three metric tons per hectare to eight metric tons per hectare.

The IAEA and FAO implemented their pilot in 2021 with a focus on developing CSA guidelines for cotton production, training Azerbaijani researchers and farmers in CSA practices and designing on-farm demonstration trials, the IAEA said. A further project initiated last year focused on strengthening best practices in soil, nutrient and water management with the goal of improving productivity.

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Mohammad Zaman, a soil scientist at the FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture and technical officer on the project, said 60 percent of the improvement in productivity came from “capitalizing on the strategic application of soil nutrients and water management.” In the beginning, Zaman said, soils were “heavily” degraded and did not have the capacity to provide all the essential nutrients for cotton growth. IAEA experts developed a set of nuclear and related farming techniques to address these shortfalls, including preparing the soil, selecting “the best” cotton varieties, applying nutrients and irrigation to the field, and ensuring weed, pest and disease control.

“Cotton in Azerbaijan is expected to be one of the crops experiencing the greatest yield decline due to climate change and rapid soil degradation,” Zaman said in a post shared on IAEA’s website. “Taking advantage of isotopic techniques, such as the use of N-15, can help adapt to this situation, making the cotton sector more competitive as well as ensuring employment and improving the welfare of the rural population.”

Cotton once provided up to a quarter of Azerbaijan’s income, with the country harvesting more than 830,000 metric tons in 1981. With the growth of other industries in the 1990s, however, production plummeted, reaching a low of 31,000 metric tons in 2009. Zaman estimated that a 10 percent adoption of the IAEA CSA practices would produce 84,000 metric tons of cotton compared to 31,500 metric tons, a 166 percent increase.

“Seeing the extraordinary success in applying climate-smart agricultural practices in this project, provides an exciting indication and tremendous promise on how it can help Azerbaijan to increase their cotton production significantly and thus, greatly impact Azerbaijani economy,” Zaman said.

Cotton microfibers’ impact on aquatic organisms

A study published by in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Source late last month suggests microplastics are not the only microfibers impacting water organisms.

The paper detailed the results of an experiment wherein Oregon State University researchers investigated how polyester, polypropylene and cotton microfibers affected the behavioral responses, growth and ingestion of fish and shrimp across a range of salinities. Though the authors found the natural cotton fibers to be less toxic when compared to their synthetic counterparts, they still reported “adverse” impacts to the shrimp species’ growth and altered behavior in the two studied species. Cotton impacted both species more at higher salinities, while the synthetics had higher impacts at lower salinities, the researchers noted.

“Our results support proposed efforts to reduce the loading of microfibers into the environment, such as potentially requiring filtration devices on washing machines and clothes dryers,” the authors wrote.

France became the first country to pass such a law in 2020, with all new washing machines sold in the country required to have a microfiber filter by 2025. Legislators in California and Oregon have pursued similar measures in the United States. Even Patagonia has gotten in on the movement, pairing up with electronics giant Samsung to develop a washing machine it says cuts microplastic emissions by up to 54 percent.

Other brands, meanwhile, are attempting to reduce the number of fibers garments shed to begin with. Last week, Polartec unveiled Polartec Shed Less Fleece, a textile that combines innovations in yarn construction, knitting, chemistry and manufacturing to minimize home laundry fiber fragment shedding by a reported average of 85 percent.

How Brazil’s growing cotton sector is affecting US exports

Also last month, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published the results of their study analyzing the interplay of U.S. and Brazilian cotton exports.

The paper, published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics in early January, found the Brazilian cotton sector’s rise has had “significant” implications for U.S. cotton exports. In particular, U.S. market share in countries like China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Pakistan has “been captured increasingly by Brazilian cotton exports.” The researchers attributed the South American country’s ascent “almost entirely” to long-run increases in land use for cotton.

The beginning of the U.S.-China trade war in 2018 and China’s imposition of 25 percent duties on U.S. cotton imports added another substantial wrinkle to the international cotton market. With U.S. cotton producers forced to seek out alternative markets, the U.S. share in countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan rebounded and have “largely” endured following the Phase 1 trade deal. “It is not clear whether this disruption will reverse, or merely forestall, the long-run import trends in these markets,” the researchers noted. In China, however, the dispute accelerated Brazil’s growing prominence, with imports remaining “well above historical levels” to date.

The decline in Chinese cotton prices last year from falling global commodity prices, diminished domestic demand and U.S. sanctions related to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act stands to further shake up the market. In response to the price decrease, the Chinese government increased cotton purchases to stabilize the domestic market, the authors said, which could “further intensify” competition between the U.S. and Brazil.