All of the energy required to produce an acre of cotton can be found in a very unlikely place – the plant’s very own seeds. This is a powerful message for cotton’s sustainability I discovered while reading through Cotton Incorporated’s life cycle analysis of cotton products, which was released in September. The study can be found at http://cottontoday.cottoninc.com/.
The analysis is part of the Cotton Foundation Vision 21 Project and included the participation of the National Cotton Council, Cotton Council International and Cotton Incorporated.
The study is part of a cotton industry effort to understand and strive for sustainability in all phases of cotton production, manufacturing and use. “Achieving this goal required our full and continuous attention on reducing environmental impact throughout every link in cotton’s long supply chain — from the seeds from which we grow cotton to the processing and manufacturing practices we use for finished goods,” the study said.
The study looked at cotton’s impact on soil, water, energy, air quality and wildlife and biodiversity.
Cotton’s energy impact at the farm level was especially noteworthy. To determine the energy input required to produce a crop, the study considered factors such as the amount of fuel used by agricultural equipment, as well as energy associated with the manufacture of inputs such as fertilizers and crop protection products.
On the energy output side, the study found that a cotton plant packs quite an energy punch. In fact, the gross energy of cottonseed produced in a ton of fiber far exceeds the energy required to produce that ton of fiber. If cottonseed were converted to energy, even at a conversion rate of 60 percent, the net energy requirements to produce an average bale of cotton in the United States is essentially zero. The oil from cottonseed can produce almost 20 gallons of biodiesel per acre.
Not bad for a non-energy crop. But that’s not all.
Over the years, cotton continues to lessen its impact on wildlife and biodiversity through advancements in technology and efficiency. For example, in 1926, 18 million bales of cotton were produced on 44.6 million acres. Today, USDA reports that those 18 million bales can be grown on 13 million acres, or 70 percent less land. This tremendous increase in efficiency is likely to continue.
According to the study, the advent of biotechnology resulted in a decrease of 271 million pounds of pesticide active ingredient from 1996 to 2006. Among other benefits, this decrease in pesticide use has been linked to significant increases in songbird populations that frequent cotton-producing regions.
While there are areas where cotton can improve its environmental footprint, a big benefit from the study is that it allows researchers to refine and focus breeding and technology on those areas. This is just this type of vision and foresight which sets the U.S. cotton industry apart from the rest of the world.