Commitment and innovation dene U.S. cotton production. Over the last 35 years, the commitment of U.S.
cotton producers, researchers, and industry organizations led to dramatic reductions in land use, soil loss,
water use, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Innovation in technologies, management systems, and
conservation created the opportunities for advancements in yield while taking stewardship of natural resources
for cotton agriculture to the highest levels in the world.
For the next decade and beyond, U.S. cotton producers and industry organizations are setting new
environmental targets to keep pushing the frontier of sustainability and leading the worldwide effort in
responsible cotton production.
The target areas and goals were established using science-based evaluations, including key performance
indicators (KPIs) for producing each pound of cotton and pathways to achieve them.
SETTING SCIENCE-BASED TARGETS
Increase Soil Carbon
Increase Land Use Efciency
Decrease Soil Loss Per Acre
Decrease Energy Use
Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Decrease Water Use
10 YEAR GOALS FOR U.S. COTTON
U.S. cotton grower, Nathan Reed, shares his continuous improvement plan to grow cotton
Increasing soil carbon, often referred to as
regenerative agriculture, is seen by many
organizations as a key strategy to reducing
atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) that leads to
climate change. The soil carbon measurement is
important not only for understanding carbon ows
to and from cotton elds, but it is also an accepted
indicator of soil health.
The USDA's Natural Resource Conservation
Service (NRCS) Soil Conditioning Index (SCI)
provides guidance on practices that increase organic
matter, or carbon, in the soil and is used as the KPI
for this sustainability goal. An increase in the SCI by
30% means an increase in the number of elds that
are increasing soil organic matter.
The primary actions to improve soil health are the
use of cover crops and reduced tillage. Currently,
approximately half of U.S. growers currently use
winter cover crops, and no-till and strip till adoption
has increased from 36% to 45% from 2008 to 2015,
respectively. There is a signicant growing interest in
the use of winter cover crops by U.S. producers and
there has been an increasing trend towards no-tillage
and strip tillage.
In addition to reducing the amount of GHG released
to the atmosphere, improving soil heath can also
contribute to: increased crop yields; reduced water
use; increased nutrient uptake; reduced fertilizer use;
reduced nutrient runoff; and reduced soil loss.
INCREASE SOIL CARBON BY 30%
FIGURE 1 No-till practices increase microbes and organic matter in the soil. The degraded cotton under-
wear (left of image) demonstrates the microbes present in healthy soils as well as the ability of cotton to
biodegrade compared to synthetics (right of image) after a ve week time period.
The effective use of agricultural land is critical to creating a more sustainable future. Population growth and the
related increased demand for food and ber necessitates a need to maximize land use efciency, or yield.
The U.S. cotton industry continues to increase its land use efciency by:
• Increasing cotton ber yields through better genetic varieties and appropriate grower management;
• Reducing the amount of water per pound of cotton, especially with highly uniform water delivery systems;
• Improving soil health through crop rotation, no-till practices, and the planting of cover crops; and
• Implementing improved irrigation scheduling tools (e.g., computer programs and sensors).
Research aimed at increasing cotton yields and reducing cotton land use are seen as key priorities for reaching
the sustainability goals while also increasing the protability of growers. Of the many areas of research and
activities to increase yields, the following are some of the most promising.
• The use of geospatial technologies that analyze in-eld water and nutrient measurements to expand
• The incorporation of digital technology applications across cooperating growers to provide greater
predictive power to grower decisions;
• Preserving the low insect-, weed-, and disease-related yield loss that U.S. growers currently experience;
• Expanding soil health knowledge and implementing practices that foster a diverse and healthy rhizosphere;
• Further adoption of in-eld, plant-based sensors to optimize irrigation in variable rate systems;
• Furthering the use of CRISPR genome editing, which has been demonstrated in cotton.¹ The CRISPR
technology is superior to traditional biotechnology approaches for its reduced regulatory burden, genome
location precision, trait exibility and potential to broaden the providers of genetic innovations for
agriculture; ² and
• Improvements in plant breeding techniques combined with more rapid adoption of improved varieties.
INCREASE LAND USE EFFICIENCY BY 13%
FIGURE 2 Geospatial technologies and digital technology applications provide growers with information to
improve land use efciency.
1 Plant Molecular Biology 2017 DOI 10.1007/s11103-017-0599-3 ; Scientic Reports 2017 DOI: 10.1038/srep43902
2 Science 2017 DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4680
Cotton growth naturally removes CO
environment through photosynthesis, however, the use
of fertilizers and other on farm activities release CO
and other greenhouse gas (GHG) to the environment.
One of the strongest contributors to cotton’s
agricultural GHG footprint is the use of synthetic
nitrogen (N) and its energy intensive manufacturing
process. In addition, N is a strong GHG contributor
because a small percent of applied N fertilizer is lost to
the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent GHG.
The cotton industry is working with scientists to
decrease the amount of nitrogen required to produce
each pound of cotton through efforts to increase
nitrogen use effeciency (NUE). Rened management
systems are calling for precise amounts of nitrogen to
eliminate waste and over application. With increased
use of site-specic management and new technologies
such as on-the-go sensors, there will be increases in
NUE and corresponding decreases in GHG emissions.
DECREASE GREENHOUSE GAS
EMISSIONS BY 39%
FIGURE 3 Sensors enable growers to more accurately
measure plant needs and to be more efcient with the
inputs applied to the crop.
Soil conservation efforts are high priority for cotton farmers as soil losses can create environmental degradation,
reduce farm productivity and decrease the quality and quantity of usable soil. While cotton eld soils are
continually produced from parent material, the industry goal is to produce more new soil than is lost due to
water or wind erosion.
From 1980 to 2005, large numbers of cotton growers in the Mid-South and Southeast adopted conservation
tillage to reduce soil erosion. This land use pattern was aided by the launch of cotton varieties tolerant to
broad-spectrum foliar herbicides in 1997, and by their rapid adoption across the U.S. Cotton Belt over the next
More recently, grower interest in cover crops for weed suppression and for soil health has extended
the protection of soil to intense rainfall. Cover crop adoption for weed control and soil health will continue to be
an important component of continuous improvement efforts of the U.S. cotton industry.
DECREASE SOIL LOSS BY 50%
Weed resistance will continue to expand as more weed species gain resistance to existing herbicide modes of
action. Since no new modes of action
are anticipated in the next ten years, growers will be under even greater
pressure to adopt cover crops to suppress weeds. Research will clarify which cover crop species and varieties
provide allelopathic weed suppression, enhancing cover crop efcacy.
Soil health is a major initiative of the USDA-NRCS.
The initiative is designed to expand the benets of rhizosphere
biology (nutrient and water uptake through roots) by increasing the soil organic matter and diversity of shoots,
roots and microbes grown in the eld. Ancillary benets include seedling wind protection and pathogen
suppression. Grower adoption of soil health measures will continue to be promoted in education outreach efforts.
The majority of the U.S. cotton crop is grown without irrigation or with only supplemental irrigation. Thus,
rainwater capture, inltration and protection from soil surface evaporation is benecial for cotton yield. With
increasing intensity of rainfall attributed to climate change
, research and educational efforts will increase use
of no-till, cover crops and surface residue which enhance rainwater utilization. These practices also prevent soil
FIGURE 4 Cover crops suppress weeds, improve soil health and prevent soil loss.
Cotton is an inherently drought tolerant crop, however, in some regions of the U.S., cotton elds are irrigated
to increase productivity. Increasing water-use efciency (WUE) would allow growers to produce more cotton
using the same amount of water; doing more with less. This increase would help the U.S. cotton industry meet
the demand for more sustainable bers while using less resources per pound of cotton.
Over the past several decades, U.S. cotton growers have increased yields without increasing water use. This
historical progress has been achieved through the use of tools and practices such as:
• The implementation of better water delivery systems (e.g. Pipe Planner
, laser leveling, low nozzle center
pivots and drip irrigation) to increase irrigation application efciencies;
• The use of improved irrigation scheduling tools (e.g., computer programs, and crop and soil sensors).
The trend of increased yields without increased water use will continue, as the adoption of irrigation
scheduling technologies is promoted. There is a strong business case for improving WUE. Data from Daystar
et al. (2017)
indicate that producers using sensor-based irrigation achieved 100 pounds higher yield/acre
without increased water use compared to producers not using sensors.
DECREASE WATER USE BY 18%
FIGURE 5 Better water delivery systems help growers to increase water use efciency by delivering water
closer to the plant, preventing evaporation. The irrigation system uses scheduling tools to only apply
water when and where it is needed.
3 USDA-AMS Cotton Varieties Planted 1997 through 2002
6 Nature Climate Change DOI:10.1038/nclimate2258
7 Daystar, J.S., E. Barnes, K. Hake, and R. Kurtz. 2017. Sustainability trends and natural resource use in U.S. cotton production.
BioResources DOI: 10.15376/biores.12.1.362-392
The primary energy expenditures in cotton production
include manufacturing nitrogen fertilizer, harvesting,
ginning and tillage. U.S. cotton growers began reducing
their energy expenditures in the 1980's by employing
reduced tillage and reducing nitrogen applications per
pound of ber produced. Since the energy requirements
for harvesting and ginning are relatively constant, the
pathway to further decreases will be addressed by the
increase in the number of growers employing reduced
tillage and reduced nitrogen applications, as well as
Several promising technologies will be available in the
10 to 30 year time frame that will lower the harvesting
and ginning energy consumption, including:
Robotic implements are already available for factory
and residential cleaning. Considering the large
market for robotic implements in agriculture, these
will be entering the market soon and will lower
cotton harvesting energy use and cost.
Gene Editing of Fiber to Seed Attachment Force
Even without a major improvement in machinery,
it is anticipated that gene editing will facilitate
development of cotton varieties with lower gin
energy costs due to the ability to manipulate the
ber to seed attachment force (ginning represents
approximately 25% of the U.S. cotton energy
footprint for non-irrigated conditions).
DECREASE ENERGY USE BY 15%
FIGURE 6 Robotic technologies are one tool that U.S. cotton
growers can employ to further decrease their energy use in
the near future.
The goal setting process followed the Framework for Sustainable Agriculture standard S629 recently
adopted by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). Leaders from U.S.
cotton industry organizations including the National Cotton Council, Cotton Board, Cotton Council
International, and Cotton Incorporated engaged ten technical experts in cotton biology and production
to discuss how future technologies would impact trends in 14 key performance indicators, which are
used to assess the sustainability of cotton production systems. In addition to leading experts in cotton
production related elds, a recent survey of over 50 cotton producers on their perceptions of future
opportunities and challenges inuenced the discussion.
As a result, recommendations for six science-based U.S. cotton industry goals were presented to the
newly formed U.S. cotton sustainability task force. A seventh goal, enrolling 2.5 million acres in the
Calculator, was also set. The Fieldprint Calculator is the tool that will measure progress and
each environmental KPI. The recommendations included goals for the next ve, ten and 30 years. The
ve and ten year goals are more tactical in nature, while the 30 year goals reect aspirational goals for
the industry. This summary document highlights the ten year goals as approved by the U.S. cotton
sustainability task force.
THE GOAL SETTING PROCESS
The U.S. cotton industry goal setting and sustainability task force were developed and approved by the National Cotton
Council of America with support from seven U.S. cotton industry segments: producers, ginners, warehousers, merchants,
cottonseed crushers, cooperatives and manufacturers. Cotton Incorporated is helping to meet these goals through research,
education, outreach and extension.
Dene Sustainability for the Enterprise
Benchmark KPI Metrics
Set Goals for Each KPI
Implement the Strategy
Measure, Assess and Report
FRAMEWORK FOR SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE BY AMERICAN SOCIETY
OF AGRICULTURAL AND BIOLOGICAL ENGINEERS, STANDARD S629
AMERICA'S COTTON PRODUCERS AND IMPORTERS Service Marks/Trademarks of Cotton Incorporated.
2018 Cotton Incorporated.