“Hey Bruce, what’s new in cotton?“ That was the question Bruce Atherley, who has served for two years as executive director of Cotton Council International (CCI), was asked by a friend when he came home from his first trip through the US cotton belt. Atherley found it hard to give an appropriate answer and felt that the cotton industry was longing for innovation to conquer the international fiber market. So the marketing expert (who previously worked at Wrigley’s, among others) launched a new initiative just called “What is new in cotton?” During Première Vision in Paris, Heimtextil in Frankfurt and Home Textiles in Shanghai Atherley presented the results to the public: The cooperation of CCI with a range of small companies from all over the world that have invented new technologies based on cotton fibers. But not only innovation drives the international non-profit marketing organization of the National Cotton Councils of America (NCC). At the same time Cotton USA developed a new agenda for 2025 with a focus on sustainability and set some ambitious goals that the farmers are trying to achieve within the next seven years.

SI met Atherley at the Bremer Cotton Exchange (Bermer Baumwollbörse) to find out how he will manage to reach the goals for 2025 and what’s the latest news in the US cotton industry.

In the last couple of years, you invested more in sustainable production. At the same time you had with 10 billion pounds of cotton in 2017 the biggest crop compared to the ten years before. Can you tell me how this is possible?

Yes, there are two main reasons: Each farmer decides every year what he is going to plant. If the prices for cotton are high compared to alternative crops like corn, soy bean or peanuts, they will make their planning decision according to that. Then secondly the final outcome is dependent on the yield. It depends on the seed, the care the farmers give–and mostly the weather. So pricing and the weather are the most important factors.

You reduced the acreage by 31% and the usage of water by 82%. That sounds like a lot! How did you manage?

You have to see: That happened over the last 35 years! For example for the reduction of water there are several ways: One is that the farmers are using more precision agricultural technology. They measure the moisture in the soil for each single square meter, and that tells them if they need more or less water. The farms have water sensors not only in the soil, but also in the air that report how much water has been collected. Secondly, we have drone mapping. For example if you have 5000 acres of land and use this technique, the drone will map different parts of your farm and will tell you: This field needs more water, this one is fine.  By the way, two-thirds of all the cotton in the US is grown with rainwater, only one-third with supplemental irrigation.

Bruce Atherley at Bremen Cotton Exchange
Photo: Cotton USA
Bruce Atherley at Bremen Cotton Exchange

Doesn’t that fact make it even more difficult to save 82%?

Yes, but there is another point. The production of cotton per acre increased, so with the same amount of water, you get a higher outcome of cotton. This is also why the acreage went down for 31%.   

You have developed some new national goals for 2025 to produce more sustainable cotton. One point you mentioned is to better integrate and understand the producer-generated data. Can you tell me what the adaption of new technologies means in practice? What kind of technologies could help to achieve your aim?

First I will tell you about the goals, which all refer to one pound of cotton: We want a reduction of the acreage by further 13%, water by 18%, greenhouse gas emissions by 39%, the usage of energy for fiber production by 15%, reduction of the soil loss by 50% and raising of the amount of carbon in the soil by 30%. And we know, this is ambitious.

Concerning the technology: Each farmer is asked to measure his production practices. We get that data and take it to another tool of an organization called “field market” They have a program, the “field print calculator.” Farmers put in all their figures: The amount of water they use, the pesticides and the fertilizer. So it tells them how they can optimize their resources for the given crop. And in the end, all that drives the costs down. So this technology helps them from the economic side and it is obviously the right thing to do for the land. Technology makes it all more sustainable. But I have to admit: All these technologies are quite expensive. Each farmer can easily spent US$10,000 to US$20,000 for the technical equipment.

Why does it make a difference in sustainable production that most farms in the US are owned by families?

A big majority, 97% of the cotton farms, is family owned; the land is their biggest asset. And in many cases this is passed down for generations. If people want to pass their business down to the next generation, they have a very high interest in sustainable production. 

For your initiative ‘What’s new in cotton?’ you supported some innovative technologies. Which one is in your opinion the most revolutionary?

That’s hard to say. The one that I think is really revolutionary is the Celliant fiber, a synthetic polymer bi-component fiber made from polyethylene terephthalate with optically active particles embedded into the core. It increases oxygenation in body tissue and is demonstrated to reduce minor aches and pains. So it takes the energy from your body, converts it and sends it back. By doing this it helps for example in recovery time from injuries. It’s actually quite astounding! If you mix Celliant with cotton, you get the comfort of cotton but with a completely new performance.  

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