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Gaps in Mind the Gap: Cotton Inc. Responds to Sustainable Cotton Report

Cotton Incorporated president and CEO J. Berrye Worsham responds to an earlier article, “New Report Says There’s at Least 83% More Sustainable Cotton Than we Think.”


The report “Mind the Gap: Towards a More Sustainable Cotton Market” is a document that pits cotton programs against each other, at the expense of the entire industry. The paper positions certification programs not as one path to responsible cotton production, but the only path.

This philosophy favors paperwork over real, measurable and verified progress, including that made by conventional cotton growers in many countries. By identifying those facts that support a pro-certification agenda, the report obscures the fact that cotton is the only commodity fiber offering the supply chain multiple methods and programs to assure responsible production and traceability.

Cotton Incorporated has been a credible resource for the cotton industry for more than 40 years. Any statements we make must be verified through a government review prior to publication—including this editorial. This process helps ensure that we are presenting an accurate and comprehensive view. Non-government organizations are not obliged to account for their claims. As such, Mind the Gap appears to overlook certain information about conventional cotton and in some instances, contradicts its own conclusions.

For example, one sponsor of the report is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Like Cotton Incorporated, the WWF is a member of Field to Market. Mind the Gap fails to consider findings from the Field to Market 2012 National Report; a publicly available study that verifies significant environmental gains by U.S. cotton growers over the past 30 years in resource use efficiency.

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According to the National Report: Cotton improved on all measures of resource efficiency, with decreases in per pound lint land use (30 percent), soil erosion (68 percent), irrigation water applied (75 percent), energy use (31 percent), and greenhouse gas emissions (22 percent).

The impact of these efficiencies were also reported in the Field to Market study: Cotton improved (decreased) per acre soil erosion (50 percent) and irrigation water applied (46 percent); per energy use decreased slightly (2 percent) and greenhouse gas emissions per acre increased (9 percent) The most significant improvement in per acre soil erosion occurred in the first half of the study period.

Mind the Gap claims its conclusions are based upon research by noted sustainable agriculture expert Simon Ferrigno. Ferrigno is on the record as debunking the myth that cotton is a “water-hog,” yet Kevin Tyrell of Pesticide Action Network UK, another sponsor, states within the report that cotton is a water-intensive crop. Tyrell goes on to say that “cotton needs cleaning up,” but perhaps it is the report that needs a thorough scrubbing.

Mind the Gap says that global cotton production accounts for 5.2% of pesticide sales; a figure that is often misstated as 5.2% of pesticide use. However, the report does not provide any context, such as the vast acreages of cotton around the world, or the costs of these inputs which, like any technology, can be high when introduced. It also fails to mention that U.S. cotton growers have reduced pesticide applications by 50 percent over the past decades. Forty percent of all crops around the world are lost to pests each year. Eliminating pesticides would only elevate that number.

Similarly, irrigation is presented as a negative in the report. Although about two-thirds of the U.S. cotton crop relies on rainfall alone, irrigation will always play a role in growing cotton, or any crop. Future gains depend upon identifying ways to get the most out of every application of water, fertilizer and pesticides. Progress in these and other areas will only occur through research and development—and education. Cotton growers in Australia and the United States self-invest in such R&D programs, and quickly embrace them.

Not every country has the luxury of a robust and longstanding infrastructure of national regulation, self-investment in improvement, or the ability to enact these practices on a national level. These commonalities are what led cotton organizations from the U.S. and Australia to form Cotton LEADS. For countries without this level of infrastructure and achievement, the education offered by certification programs is a valid and welcome means of encouraging responsible production and traceability. But it is not the only path to environmental gains for cotton.

Every cotton identity program should stand on its own merits and present a complete and absolutely honest case for itself. Incendiary statements and obfuscation may increase membership numbers in the short term, but in the long term are a disservice to cotton businesses in search of a sustainable path, and to the ideal of sustainability.

Worse yet, these tactics chip away at the perception and integrity of cotton, in general. The real threat to cotton continues to be synthetics. If the energy expended on vilifying conventional cotton were focused on combatting loss of cotton share, there would be more than enough room for all cotton identity programs to flourish.

As an industry, we should be celebrating the fact that there is actually considerably more sustainable cotton being used than this report suggests—approximately 13 million bales more in the form of U.S. and Australian conventional cotton. We should also celebrate that there is such widespread activity dedicated to cotton stewardship. Cotton businesses should be allowed to select which of these programs best fits their sustainability goals, based on a thorough and honest presentation of facts. Any other path is unsustainable.