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US Cotton Industry Develops New Protocol for Greater Sustainability

As the U.S. cotton industry moves to meet its 2025 sustainability goals, it has introduced the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, an integrated data collection, measurement and verification procedure that will document U.S. cotton production practices and their environmental impact.

The data is intended to benchmark farmer’s gains toward industry goals and will provide the global textile supply chain additional assurances that U.S. cotton is produced in a responsible manner.

“We know that U.S. cotton growers continue to embrace new technologies and management techniques that reduce impact and increase yield, but today’s textile industry needs more than just our word,” Cotton Council International president Ted Schneider said speaking Tuesday at the Cotton SourcingUSA Summit in Scottsdale Ariz., where more than 400 attendees from 26 countries, including 175 mills, gathered for a “who’s who” of the global cotton industry. “The Trust Protocol is meant to address that need with a tangible and transparent snapshot of U.S. cotton growing practices and the gains resulting from them.”

Methods embraced as part of the protocol would include subsurface water sensors and GPS-guided automated harvesters, as well as overall soil management, noted James Pruden, senior director of public relations at Cotton Incorporated. By way of example, Pruden pointed out that a 2008 survey of U.S. growers, showed 39 percent indicating they planted winter cover crops to improve soil health. In a 2015 survey, that percentage rose to 48 percent.

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“In some cotton-growing regions, such as West Texas, essential moisture for cover crops is scarce,” Pruden said. “A citizen-scientist network has been established in West Texas to develop alternatives to the standard cover crop practice in this region.”

While Schneider says he would argue that U.S. cotton “is already among the most sustainably produced in the world” thanks to a comprehensive regulatory environment stateside and the close connection of U.S. growers to their land, the industry is still working to further improve its sustainability.

The U.S. cotton national sustainability goals announced last year aim for several targets by 2025, including a 13 percent increase in productivity, such as reduced land use per pound of fiber and an 18 percent increase in irrigation efficiency. To achieve this, the industry will have to rely on increasing the use of irrigation-efficiency tools, such as sub-surface water sensors, irrigation schedulers and flow meters, Pruden noted.

Additional goals include a 39 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 15 percent reduction in energy expenditures, a 50 percent reduction in soil loss and a 30 percent increase in soil carbon. Energy expenditures, Pruden explained, include anything that utilizes energy, such as passes with a tractor and fertilizer applications.

The details of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol are being fine-tuned and a pilot program will be launched in 2019 and fully implemented with the 2020 cotton crop year. Participating growers would be required to adopt a data tool that allows for the quantitative measurement of key sustainability metrics, such as the FieldPrint Platform from Field to Market. Growers would also complete a self-assessment checklist of best management practices, with a sampling of participating producers subjected to independent verification.

The online interface and associated databases are being developed by Memphis-based company The Seam.

“The real sweet spot of the Protocol is the data collection and sharing aspect,” Pruden said. “These serve two purposes: One, to get a more accurate snapshot of grower practices to inform research, as well as identify low-hanging fruit for more widespread adoption of practices, and the reporting to the textile supply chain of the practices and their impact.”