Sip Water, Fight Pests: All in a Day’s Work for Modern Cotton

Sip Water, Fight Pests: All in a Day’s Work for Modern Cotton

Back in the day, agriculture was a dangerous game that depended on the vagaries of the weather, soil and crop-loving organisms. It was absolutely essential, but it wasn’t for the faint of heart. Though farming is no less important to society today, numerous technological advancements have made it a bit easier to manage.

 Modern Cotton

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Whether they’re pulling corn, soybeans or cotton out of the ground, today’s farmers still have a tough job. But they’re more focused than ever on making incremental improvements to the efficiency and sustainability of their craft. Here are three innovations that cotton growers, in particular, have made.

Less Land, Better Yields

Several concurrent trends are responsible for boosting cotton yields since the middle of the 20th century. Better breeding has led to more productive strains of cotton, with bigger, more fibrous bolls and larger, juicier seeds. More efficient fertilizing and soil management practices have increased output and reduced waste. And the near-eradication of key pests has reduced crop loss to insects and microbes. Put it all together and you get lower prices for anything that can be made from the cotton plant, from denim jeans to pure cottonseed oil.

Sipping Water Smartly

Every living thing uses water—some are just better at it than others. Cotton has always been drought resistant, thriving without irrigation in semi-arid regions that stymie more water-hungry crops like corn and soybeans. But it needs irrigation to survive in the driest regions. Since such areas also tend to be hot, aerial irrigation has a significant drawback: water loss to evaporation. Fortunately, there’s a simple, increasingly popular solution: surface irrigation systems, which feed water directly to the roots of cotton plants without spraying into the hot, dry, sunny air. That protects sensitive aquifers in drought-stricken places like western India and the southwestern United States, leaving more water for human consumption.

Fighting Pests Without Pesticides

Cotton plants have a long, contentious relationship with insects. Depending on the region, they’ve been targets for boll weevils, tobacco budworms, and several other serious pests. Until successful eradication efforts beat them, boll weevils were the biggest cotton pest in North America. Farmers in other parts of the world, on the other hand, once struggled mightily with the budworm.

That all began to change in the 1980s and 1990s, with the introduction of Bt cotton. This clever innovation uses genes from a particular type of bacteria to produce a toxin that’s harmful to budworms and related pests but harmless to humans and other animals. Along with boll weevil eradication and other advances, Bt cotton has reduced pesticide use in the cotton industry by about 50 percent from its 20th century high. That means cleaner water, bluer skies, and purer cottonseed oil.

The beauty of modern agriculture is its ability to stay ahead of the technological curve. These three innovations focus on the cotton industry, but there’s similarly exciting work happening with just about every mass-market crop out there. The corn, rice, wheat and soybeans we eat today would be virtually unrecognizable to farmers from 100 years ago, and it’s entirely possible that modern crops and agricultural practices will seem quaint a century hence. That’s what progress is all about.