U.S. cotton producers are in a class by themselves when it comes to sustainability. They implement conservation techniques to keep soil and crop protection products in place; use precision agriculture to insure that inputs are applied only where needed; and abide by strict standards on the use of chemicals.

If sustainability is the ability of an acre to provide profits for farmers and fiber for consumers for years to come, then U.S. cotton producers are indeed sustainable.

But there is a broader view of sustainability that needs an accounting, according to Mark Lange, president and CEO of the National Cotton Council, addressing the summer meeting of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association recently.

Lange says it isn’t enough for the U.S. cotton industry to speak of sustainability on the farm. Sustainability must also address how a product is manufactured, distributed, cared for and disposed of. It’s called life cycle analysis.

Lange explained, “If you have a highly sustainable product at the farm gate, but the processing that goes on once it leaves the farm isn’t also sustainable, you’ve lost the argument.”

As part of NCC’s Vision 21 project, the NCC, Cotton Incorporated and Cotton Council International are conducting life cycle analysis on cotton, from how it’s created to how the consumer eventually disposes of it.

“Most textile products have a considerable life span,” Lange said. “A lot of the energy or environmental footprint that occurs in cotton actually happens at the home or hotel, with the washing and handling of textile and home furnishing products.”

The effort reaches far beyond U.S. shores since 80 percent of cotton produced here goes overseas.

Lange says that ultimately, the inventory of data collected on life cycle analysis “will become a public document, with the idea that it will be accepted as the gold standard if anyone else wants to do this type of analysis on products.”

Another important task for the cotton industry is to have a stake in determining how sustainability is measured. This means keeping a close eye on organizations “with radical agendas who attempt to hijack the idea of sustainability.”

Lange cited the Leonardo Academy as an example. The self-described sustainability experts have been determined to endorse organic as the standard for sustainability.

“We’ve worked very hard at getting sound science and common sense applied,” Lange said. “I believe we have substantially reduced the tendency inside the academy to use organic as the measure of sustainability.

“We’ve always said that the most environmental farmers in the world are in the United States — farmers using labeled rates of chemicals in prescribed manners. Nobody has a problem with the safety and sustainability of American agriculture.

“But that’s not good enough,” Lange said. “That doesn’t work in the media today. You have to be something more. You have to go beyond that.”

Reports on the sustainability study should be wrapped up by year’s end.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com