U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists' expertise in measuring cotton quality has helped ensure continued access to China, a market worth $733 million in 2003 to U.S. cotton producers.

In 2002, China notified the World Trade Organization that it was going to institute new mandatory standards for short fiber content and nep count in cotton bales as measured by tests not currently used in international trade. Neps are small knots of tangled fibers that can reduce fabric quality. Since the new tests would be time-consuming and costly and would only be required in China, they represented a potential trade barrier. This concerned both USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which guides cotton quality standardization, and the National Cotton Council of America.

So AMS and the National Cotton Council turned to the Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief in-house scientific research agency, for help in evaluating the new China tests. The ARS team was led by Xiaoliang “Leon” Cui, a research cotton technologist, and Patricia Bel, a research textile engineer, both at the ARS Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, La. Cui is a leading expert in measuring cotton fiber length, and Bel is an expert in measuring neps.

Before the ARS scientists could begin their evaluation of the China methods, they first had to obtain the test instrument to be used by the Chinese, and then translate the test standards from Chinese. In a matter of weeks, the ARS scientists finished experiments to see how reliable the China methods were. They also established equations using results from conventional laboratory fiber testing methods to predict the results if U.S. cotton was tested by the China methods.

Chinese actions

Cui organized a briefing for China cotton experts to explain internationally recognized test methods and the reliability of those methods. With research results and technical advice from ARS, AMS was able to quickly respond to Chinese government officials regarding technical aspects of the new requirements.

The Chinese government has postponed implementation of the new standards and recently announced that the Chinese cotton classification system will be reformed. This reform will not only help China modernize its classing system, but also facilitate the export of U.S. cotton.

“We are helping the Chinese to adopt internationally recognized methods also used by USDA, and the ARS work has been a great help to us,” said Norma R. McDill, AMS deputy administrator of the agency's cotton program. “Since U.S. cotton exports to China in the 2003-2004 market year are likely to be about 5 million bales, this is a very important accomplishment.”

“The fast work and expertise of the ARS scientists were critical to gaining Chinese officials' commitment to internationally recognized standards and testing methods that are important to the U.S. cotton industry,” added Andrew G. Jordan, vice president for technical services for the National Cotton Council of America.

“The ability of ARS to respond quickly to a new problem and to support USDA regulatory agencies with good objective research is part of our core mission,” said ARS Acting Administrator Edward B. Knipling. “We're very proud of our scientists such as Dr. Cui and Dr. Bel who can provide answers when they're needed.”