There is no single form of sustainability in cotton cultivation – nor can there be. Conditions in the nearly 80 growing countries worldwide are too varied for a generally valid definition of sustainability to be possible.
Nevertheless, many stakeholders in the cultivation and cotton supply chain are trying to find measurable criteria for more sustainable cotton. However, there is no objective or definitive assessment here; it is a process and a complex interplay of various factors. However, it is often worth taking a critical look at the selected criteria with regard to the possible interests of the initiators.
The criteria that can currently be included in an assessment of sustainable systems include
- Water use
- Water consumption
- Use of pesticides, fertilizers
- Use of chemical fertilizers
- Soil health
- Yields per area
- Working conditions
- Income generation/ economic efficiency
- CO2 emissions
Cotton and Water
Does the Cultivation of Cotton Really Require a lot of Water?
No. Agriculture as a whole is responsible for about 70 percent of global water consumption. Cotton accounts for only three percent of global agriculture, which is also roughly the amount of land it requires. It is an exceptionally drought-resistant crop. It is cultivated particularly in arid, dry regions because it produces yields even in places where other crops no longer grow.
Of course, cotton cannot grow up without water either. Six months pass from sowing to harvesting. Only in the growing phase does the plant need moisture. Irrigation is provided either by rainfall or artificial irrigation. The latter provides higher yields. In the ripening phase, the plant reacts negatively to too much wetness. It needs a lot of sun and loves dryness. Otherwise, quality losses may occur.
Much has now been achieved in the artificial irrigation required in some areas. Overall, modern, partly computer-controlled and therefore much more productive irrigation methods (e.g. drip irrigation), as well as intelligent water storage, have led to a considerable increase in the efficiency of water consumption within the last ten years in individual countries, such as the USA and Australia. In the USA, only 35 percent of the cultivated area is artificially irrigated.
Water Requirements of Cotton Depend on Regional Conditions
In Africa, which is characterized by smallholder farming structures, cotton cultivation in certain regions usually manages exclusively with rain irrigation due to the positive climatic conditions. The same applies to India. Since many developing countries do not necessarily have a regular supply of electricity, which would be needed for irrigation systems, they are also simply dependent on rain. In Israel, water recycling is used in addition to efficient irrigation techniques.
Because cotton is grown in so many different countries, which have very different irrigation systems, it is not possible to give an average consumption that applies to all regions.
Methods are currently being developed worldwide to continuously reduce water consumption in cotton growing. In many regions, intensive training measures for cotton farmers are leading to this goal. In parallel, agricultural research is currently working on the development of cotton plants that can grow with less water.
More Information on Cotton & Water
- Interview with Dr. Ed Barnes: How much water does cotton really need?
- Our series of articles on irrigation methods in cotton production:
- Transformers Foundation Report: Cotton – A Case Study in Misinformation
Plant Protection in Cotton Cultivation
“Cotton needs a lot of pesticides.” A much-quoted statement that simply cannot stand as it is:
Many initiatives around the world are working to make pesticide use more targeted and safer. Integrated Pest Management also uses natural enemies, biopesticides, crop rotation or alternate areas.
Further information on crop protection in cotton production:
Today, modern technology supports agriculture on many levels – be it in seed breeding, crop monitoring or harvesting. They also make it possible to use operating resources with ever greater precision and in a way that conserves resources. Together with increasing digitalization of the supply chain, many technological innovations offer more opportunities for transparency and traceability.
Why we don’t appreciate modern agriculture, but should – by Andreas von Tiedemann, Professor of Plant Pathology and Plant Protection at the University of Göttingen.