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Air Quality

Improving air quality is a continuous focus area for the U.S. cotton industry. Reduced tillage practices now in place reduce dust emissions from the field, and many air quality controls are practiced at cotton gins. Furthermore, cotton has a small greenhouse gas footprint, and when the carbon stored in the fiber is taken into consideration, the carbon emitted in cotton's production is canceled out by the carbon in the fiber.


Cotton and Air Quality

Agriculture and the cotton industry are modifying their impact through better management of agricultural practices on the farm and in processing agricultural products.

Specifically, reduced tillage decreases dust emissions from the field, [1] and many air quality controls are in place at the gin where the cotton fiber is separated from the seed. Reduced tillage practices also increases sequestration rates of soil carbon — as much as 400 pounds of carbon per acre per year. [2]

Furthermore, the carbon footprint from the planting of cotton through ginning is fairly small, approximately 300 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions per acre. [3] In a no-tillage production environment, if credit is taken for the 400 pounds of carbon in the soil, cotton production actually stores 100 pounds more carbon than its production emits. Taking additional credit for the carbon in the fiber [4] , an acre of no-till cotton actually stores 450 pounds more of atmospheric carbon than was emitted in its production. [5]

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Air Quality Trends in Agriculture [6]

  • Air quality is an increasingly important issue for agriculture and natural resources conservation.
  • Leading agricultural air quality issues include particulate matter, ozone precursors, odors, ammonia and greenhouse gases.
  • The USDA's Natural Resources Conversation Service (NRCS) developed a web-based tool for farmers, the COMET-VR, that estimates greenhouse gas emissions and for voluntary reporting of green house gas savings with conservation systems.
  • In 2003, estimates of wind erosion from cropland showed a reduction to 56% of levels present in 1982.
  • Regulatory agencies are taking a more detailed look at agricultural air quality.

More information on NRCS air quality information is available at:

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U.S. Environmental Regulations for Air Quality

Air quality is a major concern for the cotton industry and agriculture in general. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 of (Sections 108 and 109) required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), and to review and revise them every 5 years.

Primary NAAQS must be set at the level that is "requisite to protect the public health," and secondary standards must be set at the level to protect public welfare from known or anticipated adverse effects. The 1990 amended Clean Air Act (CAA) set new requirements for federal operating permits (Title V), for attainment of particulate matter (PM) and ozone requirements (criteria pollutants) and for hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Cotton production, ginning, cottonseed crushing and textile processing have all adjusted operations to meet these regulations.

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  1. Reduced tillage improves air quality by: 1) reducing tillage passes across the field decreases dust generation and tractor emission; 2) surface residue reduces wind erosion; and 3) improves soil carbon sequestration. For example, see page 30 of: Tillage: From Plow to Chisel and No-tillage, 1930-1999. 2001, MidWest Plan Service, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, 50011-3080
  2. H. J. Causarano, A. J. Franzluebbers, D. W. Reeves, and J. N. Shaw. 2006. Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration in Cotton Production Systems of the Southeastern United States: A Review. J. Environ. Qual. 35:1374-1383
  3. Richard G. Nelson, Chad M. Hellwinckel, Craig C. Brandt and Tristram O. West, Daniel G. De La Torre Ugarte, and Gregg Marland. 2009. Energy Use and Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Cropland Production in the United States, 1990-2004. J. Environ. Qual. 38:4
  4. The cotton fiber is 42% carbon. Wakelyn, P.J. et al. 2007. Chapter 3 - Chemical Composition of Cotton in Cotton Fiber Chemistry and Technology. CRC Press, New York.
  5. Based 2004 to 2008 average yield as reported in: Leslie Meyer, Stephen MacDonald, James Kiawu, COTTON AND WOOL SITUATION AND OUTLOOK YEARBOOK. Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, November 2008 of 833 pounds of lint per acre. 833 pounds per acre *0.42 [fraction of carbon in the lint] = 350 pounds of carbon per acre.
  6. Conservation Resource Brief, Air Quality, Feb. 2006, Number 0605. USDA NRCS. Available online at: feature/ conservationresourcebriefs.html

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is it true that cotton uses a large amount of water compared with other crops?
No. Cotton's overall water use is not that different than other major crops.