Third Avenue, in the midst of the racket and frenzy of Manhattan, is a “fer piece” from the places farm writers typically travel to find stories. And New York City typically is not “top of the heap” as a likely place to learn about cotton genetics or pest management.
But 14 floors above that bustling street—in a building devoted to decoration and design, insulated from the perpetual honking of horns, blare of sirens, and the peculiar sight of people seeming to carry on conversations with themselves (ear buds) as they dodge traffic and each other to navigate crowded streets—an assembly of textile manufacturers, apparel retailers, and a few trade journalists (one representing agriculture) found plenty of interest in a Cotton Incorporated seminar curiously titled: “Everything You’ve Heard About Cotton is Wrong.”
An expert panel representing the multiple facets of cotton—from seed to sheet—focused on the sustainability of the cotton industry, dispelling myths and providing insight into research that not only will reduce cotton’s ecological footprint across the breadth of the industry, but also will help sustain human nutrition.
In a nutshell—or a cotton boll—participants heard from experts who explained how cotton’s reputation as bad for the environment is wrong.
Cotton Incorporated’s director of agricultural research Ryan Kurtz, offered details on the progress cotton producers have made in the last 35 years to limit environmental damage. Cotton producers today use 40 percent less water to produce twice as much cotton per acre. Pesticide use is down—producers target specific insect pests with new products that require milligrams per acre instead of pounds per acre.
Integrated pest management makes pest control more efficient. The Boll Weevil Eradication Program and Bt cotton have reduced insecticide use from as many as 15 applications per year to an average of only two. Soil loss is down, thanks to great strides in tillage research.
Dr. Keerti Rathore, professor in the Texas A&M Soil and Crop Science Department, explained how work he’s doing with cotton seed genetics—eliminating gossypol just from the seed, leaving the natural toxin in place in other parts of the plant—may have nutritional benefits for humans. Making cotton seed a more viable protein option, he said, could improve nutrition for as many as 500 million to 600 million people. Cotton seed without gossypol may be fed to animals other than cattle—chicken, hogs, seafood.
Jesse Daystar, assistant director for sustainability and commerce at Duke University, said research shows that sustainability is not just an environmental issue but also one that affects people. He said efficient production is an important factor in cotton farm sustainability. “We have a misconception that organic or all natural is always better,” Daystar said. “But technology often offers more efficient production. Look at the numbers; look at the science.”
Garry Bell, vice president, corporate marketing and communications for Gildan, a textile manufacturer and retailer, said sustainability “touches every aspect of our manufacturing process. Our challenge is to explain that commitment to our customer base.”
He said the company sources material carefully to consider sustainability. Reducing water use is a commitment. He says Gildan “recycles or repurposes 90 percent of the water” used in manufacturing. “Sustainability does not necessarily need to be more expensive,” Bell said.
Bryan Dill, head of global key accounts, Archroma US, Inc., talked about converting to more natural dyes, including “earth tones” that are derived from plant material such as olive pits, almond shells, and rosemary shoots. Cotton waste also may be useful in making natural dyes.
Rathore says genetics and gene manipulation could play a role in reducing the need for dyes.
Farm Press will explore some of these discussions in more depth in the next few days.
New York, it turns out, was a good place to talk about cotton’s sustainability message. Although not too many in the crowd likely have ever been in a cotton field or met a real live cotton farmer, The Big Apple is important for cotton. The New York Cotton Exchange, for instance, is the market barometer for cotton around the globe. And the garment and fashion industries are as closely linked to New York as the Yankees and the Rockettes.
The Decoration and Design building, a fabric and furnishings center, was an ideal venue for the gathering.
Bob Stanley, who works for the Cotton Board in Lubbock, Texas, observed that the audience was attentive, engaged and seemed more than willing to consider that cotton might be a more sustainable option than they thought before.
Cotton Incorporated has the research to back that up. “Start spreading the news.”