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Cotton agriculture around the world has evolved dramatically in recent years. In the U.S. in particular, the commitment to innovation and continuous improvement has led to significant reductions in the water, land and energy needed to produce cotton, and decreased soil loss and greenhouse gas emissions – all while increasing crop yields.

In line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and grounded in science-based evaluation, the U.S. cotton industry has established a set of goals to achieve within the 10 years between 2015 and 2025, to further improve cotton sustainability and lead the world in responsible cotton production. These goals include:

Increasing Soil
Carbon by
Increasing soil carbon, or increasing the amount of organic material in soil, is also a key element of improving soil health. More soil carbon means a healthier environment for crops to grow in, and can lead to increased crop yields and nutrient uptake, and reduced water use, fertilizer use, nutrient runoff and soil loss. It also means that more carbon in the atmosphere is naturally sequestered in the soil by cotton plants, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are multiple ways U.S. cotton growers increase soil carbon, including limiting or eliminating soil tillage, or planting winter cover crops. In fact, around half of U.S. cotton growers use winter cover crops, and between 2008 and 2015, no-till and strip-till farming increased by 9%.
Increasing Land
Use Efficiency by 13%
As the population continues to grow and our need for food, shelter, and clothing increases, so does the need to use agricultural lands as efficiently as possible. Healthier soil can help increase crop yields, as can improved irrigation techniques. Additionally, researchers are developing new varieties of cotton that produce higher amounts of cotton fiber. The U.S. cotton industry has established the research and development of advanced technologies and science-based farming practices as key priorities for continually improving land use efficiency, while also increasing cotton yields – all in improved harmony with the environment.
Decreasing Greenhouse
Gas Emissions by 39%

Like other plants, cotton captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses it to grow. But, cotton also requires nutrients to grow, and the production and use of fertilizers like synthetic nitrogen releases greenhouse gases into the environment. Cotton growers are working with researchers to decrease the amount of fertilizers needed to produce cotton, using technologies that identify the precise amount of nitrogen needed to optimize cotton growth.

Decreasing Soil
Loss per Acre by 50%
Soil conservation is a critical goal across the agriculture industry. Preserving soil means preserving agricultural productivity and improving the environment. As our climate continues to change, water and wind erosion continue to threaten agricultural lands, and so do newer and more resistant weed species. Cotton growers are committed to preserving healthy soil through innovative techniques like minimizing soil tillage and planting cover crops.
Water Use by
Although the majority of U.S. cotton gets its water from natural rainfall, cotton growers in some regions of the U.S. need to apply irrigation to their crops to supplement rainwater. These growers are seeking to increase the efficiency of irrigation, in order to produce greater amounts of cotton using less water. Over the past 40 years, cotton growers have continuously improved cotton yields without increasing water use through the implementation more efficient and precise irrigation tools and methods, such as crop and soil sensors, drip irrigation, irrigation scheduling. Data collected in 2017 shows that sensor-based irrigation systems helped growers achieve fiber yield increases of 100 pounds per acre without increased water use.1 More widespread use of these methods, and continued research into new technologies and approaches to better apply irrigation where and when it’s needed will continue to improve water use efficiency over time.
Energy Use by
Energy use in the cotton industry is driven largely by the production and use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, tilling in cotton fields, harvesting cotton, and ginning. Reduced tillage and precision applications of fertilizer have steadily reduced energy use per pound of cotton fiber since the 1980s. New and emerging technologies, such as innovations in agricultural robotics, or genetic editing of cotton plants to reduce the amount of ginning needed to separate seeds from fibers, will continue to drive down the energy needs of the cotton industry over the next decade and beyond. For example, it is anticipated that gene editing alone will help to produce cotton varieties that naturally use less energy in the ginning process, as it will require less force (and thus ginning energy) to separate seeds from fiber.

The process to develop these goals 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 a body of experts in cotton biology and production to explore how future technologies would impact trends across 14 key performance indicators used to assess the sustainability of cotton production systems. A further survey of more than 50 cotton producers gathered perceptions of future opportunities and challenges and provided additional context in the formation of these goals.  

These conversations resulted in six science-based U.S. cotton industry goals that were presented to the newly formed U.S. cotton sustainability task force, as well as a seventh goal of enrolling 2.5 million additional acres in the Fieldprint® Calculator, a tool that measures progress against environmental KPIs. Each of these goals has five, ten, and 30-year milestones (ten-year milestones are reflected on this page) that range from tactical in the near term to aspirational in the future.

Pathways to Progress: Setting Sustainability Goals

  1. Daystar, J. S., Barnes, E., Hake, K., & Kurtz, R. (2017). Sustainability trends and natural resources use in U.S. cotton production. BioResources, 12(1), 362–392. https://bioresources.cnr.ncsu.edu/resources/sustainability-trends-and-natural-resource-use-in-u-s-cotton-production/.