A pesticide is any biological or chemical deterrent to natural crop predators. It includes the sub-categories of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, bactericides, and nematicides. Used in both conventional and organic production systems, pesticides help to protect crops. It is estimated that 40% of the world’s agriculture is lost each year to pests. The safe and efficient use of pesticides is a valuable tool to ensure stable and steady supplies of food and fiber for a growing global population. The cotton industry actively pursues efficiencies in all aspects of production, including pesticide management. Currently, the global cotton industry accounts for 5.6% of global pesticide sales. Cotton growers in the United States make 50% fewer pesticide applications than the generation before them. One of the reasons for this sharp decline in the U.S. is the introduction of Bt cotton in 1996.
Integrated pest management strategies and other enhanced technologies have resulted in reduced insecticide applications in the U.S. and around the world. Specifically, the advent of insect-resistant strains of cotton and high-tech pest monitoring systems has helped cotton growers reduce the volume of inputs needed to cultivate their crops. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), only about 0.8 pounds of insecticides and 2.1 pounds of herbicides are applied to each acre of cotton. Since the average acre in the U.S. produces about 800 pounds of cotton, that means only 0.09 ounces of total pesticides are applied per pound of cotton produced.
With the introduction of biotech cotton, proliferation in the use of integrated pest management (IPM) practices, and implementation of area-wide pest management programs, the number of pesticide applications has been reduced by 50% between 1986 and 2008. Although the number of insecticide applications shows trends in pesticide usage, it does not address the amount of pesticide applied, nor does it address the toxicity of the material or its environmental impact. These are components that make up the environmental footprint. This is best demonstrated in a complex equation—An Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ)—derived by scientists at Cornell University for all crops and most chemical pesticides used in agriculture. It is a robust measure of the environmental impact of that technology and incorporates toxicity and environmental exposure data to determine the environmental footprint of a particular practice. From 1996 to 2006 there has been a decrease of more than 123 million kilograms (271 million pounds) of pesticide active ingredient used in cotton with a decrease of greater than 23% in the environmental impact in countries employing biotech technology. Great environmental benefits have been realized in developing countries, as a result of insect resistant cotton, and in developed countries, from the herbicide tolerance technology. Environmental gains from the herbicide tolerance traits have come from the facilitation of changes in farming systems. Herbicide tolerance technology has played an important role in the move away from conventional tillage to conservation tillage production systems. This change in production system has reduced levels of greenhouse gas emissions from reduced tractor fuel use and facilitated soil carbon sequestration. Conservation tillage also conserves topsoil, preserves soil moisture and reduces runoff. Another benefit of herbicide tolerant technology is an improvement in water quality through the use of more benign herbicides that rapidly dissipate.