The U.S. cotton industry needs to expand marketing opportunities related to sustainability and the environment, according to J. Berrye Worsham, president and chief executive officer of Cary, North Carolina-based Cotton Incorporated. The reality in the marketplace is that people are defining sustainability as organic. In reality, organic is a small fraction of the market, he said.

“The first one out there who creates a definition could have a tremendous marketing and selling opportunity,” he said. “We don’t want someone else redefining it in a way that crowds out U.S. cotton. Domestic cotton is grown under fairly strict requirements. If you meet the U.S. government’s required definition, then it’s sustainable cotton. We want to use that as a marketing opportunity when we talk to brands and retailers. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Worsham, who spoke at the 2006 Cotton Board annual meeting on Sept. 8 in Scottsdale, Ariz., said cotton’s sustainability public relations effort must set the record straight about modern cotton production especially in the United States, and highlight the environmental achievements made by the domestic industry. The U.S. cotton industry should receive credit for its sustainability record. Sustainability does not have to equal organic production, he noted. Organic production will not increase enough to meet the demand for “environment-friendly” cotton. “There’s 99.9 percent of the cotton market that’s non-organic and a chunk of that should be heralded as sustainable. U.S. cotton is produced under fairly strict regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. In addition, state requirements exist on environment and labor issues.”

The U. S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of sustainability has three circles: the environment, economics and quality of life standards, noted Worsham. “It’s about the intersection of all three. You must able to make a profit, be an environmental steward and have reasonable quality of life standards. In other words, you could have something good for the environment but if it requires a tremendous amount of labor then you’re not going to make any money at it. That’s not sustainable. There’s no hard definition that sustainability is this amount of pesticides or this strict definition of inputs.” Only organic has that definite standard.

Conventional cotton continues to receive a bad rap. Some statistics are completely off the mark or so far out of date that makes the numbers irrelevant, Worsham said. Some people claim that 25 percent of the world’s pesticides go into cotton. He called 8.5 percent a more accurate figure. The average grower sprays less today than 10-15 years ago.

Worsham called U.S. cotton production a modern system that embraces biotechnology to reduce inputs per unit. It is frustrating that U.S. conventional growers must defend themselves against misleading information. “Instead of being an opportunity, we’re almost fighting from a deficit position. We think the U.S. cotton grower is a good steward of the land. This should be an advantage in producing U.S. cotton, not a disadvantage.”

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com