Can Cotton Drive American Ag Sustainability?

Dr. Andy Jordan

Can Cotton Drive American Ag Sustainability?

by Laurie Stern

In the first of two episodes about cotton farming, Field Work hosts Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora learn about the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a new set of sustainability standards. Dr. Andy Jordan, who helped write the protocol, explains how it works.

Farmers from 17 southern states supply more than a third of the world’s cotton and bring in $7 billion a year. But brands and retailers — cotton’s customers — are getting picky about how their cotton is produced. They want to assure their customers that farmers care about the environment. The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol gives farmers a way to measure and improve soil carbon, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and energy use, among others. 

The protocol rewards farmers and others in the supply chain by tracking every bale from the field to the gin to manufacturers and retailers. It launched in 2020 with about 500 farmers who agreed to measure things like greenhouse gas emissions and water use on 10 percent of their acreage and to work towards improving those metrics.

Q. Why should a farmer join the protocol?

The new standards help a producer see their way forward. Data collection allows farmers to do scenario planning, with the help of the NRCS, and that can lead to savings on inputs, financial incentives to adopt conservation practices and increased profitability. Because brands and retailers are getting pickier about who they buy from, a farmer who can demonstrate they care about conservation is going to get more market share. 

“Our export customers are extremely important,” Andy Jordan told Zach and Mitchell. “If you have a brand or retailer in Europe and they say we want farmers only from approved sources, our farmers and US cotton were not on the list because we didn’t have a program.”

Q. What does the protocol measure? 

Using the Fieldprint Calculator, cotton farmers establish a baseline on six metrics: land use, soil carbon, water management, soil loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy efficiency. They commit to continuous improvement, accessing resources made available by the protocol. Every year, they measure the six sustainability metrics on the same 10 percent acreage they set aside. 

The protocol’s goals are ambitious: By 2025, it’s promising big reductions in soil loss, water use and greenhouse gas emissions, land use  and energy use; a soil carbon increase of 30 percent. 

Q. How are the metrics calculated and verified?

The Trust Protocol uses self-assessments to measure producer performance against benchmarks it sets according to individual producers’ resources and needs. Control Union Certifications are issued to participating farmers who complete a one-day training and submit data through the Protocol portal. About 25 percent of them will be assigned to a second-party verifier, who will attest to the accuracy of the information.  

Q. Who runs the protocol?

Agribusiness, manufacturers, conservation and consumer groups and farmers are all represented on the Protocol’s  governing board. Their common interest is promoting the U.S. cotton industry. 

Q. How many cotton farmers are participating?

The protocol launched in 2020, and Andy Jordan told Field Work it aims to enroll 10 percent of the nation’s 16,000 cotton farmers by the end of this year, and 50 percent by 2025. 

“The more involvement there is, the easier it will be to get it done,” he said.