• Mar27
  • How Sustainable Cotton Farming Is Transforming Agriculture — and Your Diet

    For those who don’t live in rural areas or have some personal or familial connection to farming, agriculture can seem like a distant concept. Many still adhere to romantic notions of farming and foodways — small, family-owned farms where the work is done by hand and the fruits of the harvest are sold at market in the nearest town.

    While the organic and local food movements are building momentum for a return to a modern version of this idyll, there’s another trend in 21st-century farming that deserves attention: accelerating technological advancements that boost sustainability and improve output. Here’s how sustainable cotton farming is changing what we eat, what we wear and how we interact with the planet.

    Less Water, More Cotton

    Agriculture isn’t possible with a steady supply of water. Although some crops, such as wheat, can get by with relatively little water and others, like rice, literally need to be standing in it, nothing that grows can go completely without it.

    And that makes farming a challenge in drought-prone areas. Farmers in California and the American Southwest always have to worry about where their water’s coming from. Recent droughts have underscored the need for better conservation practices.

    It’s not much of a stretch to say that cotton itself is a water conservation strategy. Much of the country’s cotton acreage is “dryland,” meaning it doesn’t rely on regular irrigation (which can drain aquifers in arid areas). In places that do require irrigation, new technologies deliver water directly to each plant’s roots, reducing the amount of water lost to evaporation on hot days.

    Better Cotton Without the Pesticides

    Pesticide use was once another “given” in modern agriculture. There are simply too many insects and microbes that want to harm commercial crops, the thinking went — they can’t possibly fight them all with their natural defenses, no matter how hard they try.

    Well, modern science has an answer: selective breeding and gene modification. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s very real. In fact, cotton was one of the first crops to be successfully modified to produce a natural pesticide against a common (and devastating) pest, the tobacco budworm. Known as Bt cotton, the resultant strain is now widely used in the developing world, where the pest was particularly problematic.

    In the United States, it was the boll weevil that devastated cotton populations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s no strain of cotton that naturally defends against the weevil, but a fierce eradication program has eliminated the bug in all but a handful of southern counties. With fewer weevils to eat their cotton crops, farmers across the southern United States have far less use for pesticides than they once did. That’s great news for our lakes, rivers and oceans, which are all negatively impacted by pesticide runoff.

    Sustainable Cotton Farming for the Win

    Cottonseed oil manufacturing shouldn’t be a black box. Neither should sustainable cotton farming. It’s important that this story get told — mostly because it’s so optimistic. After all, if you think about how far we’ve come in the past half-century, can you imagine what we’ll accomplish in the next?