The trend at Wal-Mart and other retailers toward sustainable or environmental marketing of fabric and apparel might have presented Cotton Incorporated with a challenging public relations battle 10 or 15 years ago. But today, the organization, as well as the National Cotton Council and the Cotton Board, are welcoming the opportunity to discuss sustainability with anybody who’ll listen.

One reason for their enthusiasm are developments in the cotton industry that they say prove that conventionally-grown cotton is the sustainable and environmental fiber in the world today — not organic cotton, and certainly not polyester fiber.

Cotton industry leaders such as Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated, and William Crawford, president and CEO of the Cotton Board, say importers and retailers they deal with every day are increasingly hungry for information on environmental issues and sustainability.

“It’s quite possible that environmentally-related issues could make their way into the consumer market as part of the buying decision,” said Worsham. “We definitely don’t want this to be a negative for cotton.”

Retailers are also vulnerable to incorrect information, another good reason to talk cotton with them, according to Worsham. As an example, he pointed to a recent Wal-Mart internal publication which implied that organically-grown cotton saves nearly 1 ton of pesticides from being applied per acre. Worsham plans to meet with Wal-Mart, “and we will respectfully challenge the assertions made. I don’t think they deliberately distorted the figures, but those are the kinds of statements that have become accepted ‘facts.’”

The U.S. cotton industry is not out to slam organically-grown cotton as a niche market, according to Crawford. “We’re just trying to establish the facts between organic versus conventional production.”

The cotton industry plans to convince retailers, importers and brand-name companies that conventionally-grown cotton has what it takes to sway the environmentally-conscious buyer, who might very well be confused by what sustainability means.

As for the cotton industry, “Sustainable production must supply the world’s demand for natural fiber and food tomorrow,” Worsham said. “It must maintain environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends. It must sustain the economic viability of farm operations.

“People who want to grow cotton organically, that’s great. The reality is that demand for fiber grows by 9 million bale equivalents per year, worldwide. That’s either going to be supplied by conventional cotton’s best management practices, or it’s going to be produced in a factory.”

The message that the cotton industry will take to retailers will also focus on improvements in conventionally grown cotton’s so-called environmental footprint, which incorporates the number of applications of pesticides, toxicity and persistence in the environment for chemicals used in a specific crop. “From 1996 to 2004, there has been a 17 percent reduction in the environmental footprint of cotton,” said Roy Cantrell, Cotton Incorporated vice president, breeding, genetics and biotechnology.

“During that same eight-year period, yields per ace went up 25 percent. So at the same time we’re reducing the environmental footprint, yield is actually going up. So we have some outstanding data and a good story to tell.”

Using less land to produce more cotton is another environmental benefit, one that organic cotton has difficulty claiming. “In 1926, 17.9 million bales of cotton were produced on 44.6 million acres,” noted Cantrell. “In 2004, 23.2 million bales were produced on 13.7 million acres. With modern technology at least 30 million acres can be dedicated to other uses in the United States alone. In many cases, it’s being converted to non-agricultural uses.

“We also see this trend being adopted globally. There are only 85 million to 90 million acres of land globally that can be devoted to cotton production, and we just don’t see acreage increasing dramatically. So to meet the growing demand for cotton, we have to increase the productivity per acre and do it in such a way that protects the environment.”

Meanwhile, in 2004, conventional cotton averaged 850 pounds of lint per acre compared to a little less than 600 pounds for organic cotton.

Using these numbers, converting conventional cotton to organic cotton would require an additional 6 million acres of land to sustain current demand in the United States and 30 million worldwide. “A production system is not sustainable if it requires significantly more land,” noted Worsham.

“Sustainability is a way to look to the future, to be proactive,” Cantrell said. “It’s not being negative or defensive. It’s something we’re already doing, but sometimes we’re not getting credit for it.”

Cantrell noted that the average number of insecticides applied to the crop has dropped over 50 percent Beltwide due to the adoption of GMO technologies, integrated pest management, careful scouting and monitoring of thresholds.

The cotton industry has also seen positive trends in water usage. “We have seen a 45 percent improvement in water use efficiency in the last decade, thanks to modern irrigation technology, higher-yielding varieties and smarter methods of supplemental irrigation.

“One of the most significant changes we’ve seen in terms of the environment is the adoption of conservation tillage. We have data to show that over 60 percent of the U.S. acreage is in some form of conservation tillage. This reduces fuel use and soil loss due to erosion. It’s great for habitat and wildlife. All this integrates into a very positive environmental message.”

The application of modern technology has also lead to a dramatic reduction in insecticide applications for U.S. cotton, dropping from an average of 5.5 per acre in 1986-1989 to less than 3.0 applications in 2000-2004.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com