World cotton production is expected to grow only modestly through the rest of this decade, a development that could constrain both consumption and the cotton value chain, a cotton expert predicts.

Terry Townsend, executive director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee in Washington, said the only scenario that might change the growth rate is the discovery of a new technology – such as Bt cotton – that could trigger a new round of yield hikes.

“The extraordinary increases in yields observed in cotton production over the 2000s, averaging 3.7 percent annually, will likely not continue in the near future,” said Townsend, speaking at the Cotton Economic Outlook Symposium at the National Cotton Council’s Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Orlando.

Since the 1950s, cotton yields have experienced periods of slow growth during periods of technology consolidation, alternating with periods of rapid growth during periods of new-technology adoption.

Yields seem to have entered a period of slow growth since 2005-06 because the rate of expansion in biotech cotton area has slowed. (Cotton yields peaked at a record 708 pounds of lint cotton per acre in 2007-08. Since then, yields have been lower, reaching around 660 pounds per acre in each of the last three years.)

Difficult to predict

“It is likely that over the next several decades, new advances in technologies could trigger another period (or two) of rapid growth in cotton yields,” Townsend said. “However, it is impossible to forecast when such advances will take place, and many of the new advances in technologies will focus on optimizing the use of inputs such as water, fertilizers, and pesticides; therefore affecting mainly production costs per hectare and not yields.”

The world cotton yield is expected to grow by an annual average rate of about 1 percent this decade, reaching just 800 kilograms per hectare or 710 pound per acre by 2019-20, Townsend notes.

The world cotton industry has experienced dramatic changes over the last six decades. Production nearly quadrupled, rising from 31 million bales in 1950-51 to a record of 124 million bales in 2004-05. The average annual rate of growth in world production over the last six decades was 2.5 percent or about 1.3 million bales.

One of the biggest changes occurred when world cotton production exploded from 65 million bales in the early 1980s to 88 million bales in 1984-85, as political change in China, higher prices, and the widespread use of better seed varieties and better methods of plant protection led to increased yields.

World production climbed to a record of nearly 95 million bales in 1991-92 but leveled off during the 1990s. “With the commercial use of biotech cotton varieties beginning in 1996 and the expansion of cotton areas in Francophone Africa, Australia, central Brazil, northwestern China, and Turkey, world production reached 124 million bales in 2004-05 and remained nearly as high during the following three seasons,” says Townsend.

World area dedicated to cotton has fluctuated since the 1950s between 69 million and 89 million acres, with an average of 82 million acres. While acreage has fallen dramatically in some regions since the 1950s, particularly in the United States, Central Asia, northern Brazil and North Africa, there have been offsetting increases in Francophone Africa, China, India and Pakistan.