Like a snowball rolling downhill, becoming bigger as it goes, cotton's problems over the past several years have grown larger — the cumulative result being a chronic absence of profitability, continued dependence on government financial assistance, and the closing of cotton-related businesses across all sectors of the industry.
“It has been difficult to find solutions that adequately address these problems,” National Cotton Council Chairman James E. Echols says.
“This situation makes it more important than ever for our industry and those who serve it to rally ‘round the common bond of technology,” he said at the opening session of the annual Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta, Ga., attended by producers, agribusiness representatives, Extension/research leaders, merchants, shippers, and other industry sectors. The theme for the conferences is, “Technology — The Common Thread.”
Echols, who is president and chief executive officer of Hohenberg Cotton Co., Memphis, Tenn., said it is “of critical importance that we combine technology transfer with our political efforts in Washington in our mission to restore economic viability to our industry.”
Tops on the political agenda, he noted, will be completion of the new farm bill, which failed to gain Senate passage before adjournment in December. “When Congress returns this month, we will need your help to insure passage of workable farm policy. The broader our base of support, the better our chances of success.”
Many of the National Cotton Council's key program priorities have a technology component, Echols said.
The Council's Quality Task Force continues to emphasize quality and yield improvement by reviewing public breeding programs to encourage more participation in localized breeding programs and to insure the maintenance of publicly-developed strains as public property. It has initiated research on fine leaf trash to determine its sources and will review results of an investigation into factors that contributed to a higher-than-expected percentage of the 2001 crop having short staple length and high micronaire.
The Bale Packaging Committee has updated educational programs on bale size requirements and has urged the industry to move, where practical, to recessed ties on all bales. Both initiatives are aimed at increasing efficiency of storage and handling.
The Electronic Documents Task Force is working to expedite the implementation schedule for the new U.S. Warehouse Act, which will govern electronic warehouse receipts and other electronic documents involved in commodity transactions, and is providing input on the USDA's efforts to develops a procedure for centralized electronic loan redemptions.
In the area of plant protection, the Council has worked closely with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Monsanto Company on refuge options for Bt cotton, and the EPA has announced an extended registration for Bollgard.
Bt technology continues to be widely embraced by U. S. producers, Echols noted, with transgenic varieties planted on 69 percent of the 11.2 million acres planted in 2001.
“We're making great strides toward eliminating one of cotton's most lethal pests, as 10.9 million acres in nine states come under the national Boll Weevil Eradication Program in 2002. Post-eradication areas already designated as weevil-free now cover about 4.5 million acres in 10 states.”
Increased support is being sought for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to begin sterile insect release in the pink bollworm eradication program now underway in the Trans Pecos/El Paso zone of Texas. Federal cost-share funding is being pursued to make sterile insects available no later than the 2003 season.
Efforts are continuing to develop more effective testing for flammability of cotton products and the Consumer Products Safety Commission has issued rulemaking to develop a flammability standard for mattresses and bedding; to obtain an exemption from ergonomic injury stands for agriculture in favor of a “voluntary best practices” approach, and to get less severe solvent extraction rules for vegetable oil production. As a result of Council efforts, Echols noted, “two standards instead of one were approved for two sizes of cotton oil extraction mills and a three-year compliance period was established.”
The Council and other groups are working closely with the EPA as it completes its five-year review of national ambient air standards, due by July. “We want to insure that these standards use sound science and minimize the impact of any new standards that may result from the review.”
He said the Council's legal challenge on the EPA's non-point pollution source regulations have resulted in the agency “reviewing its entire approach to regulating agriculture as a non-point water pollution source — an important first step in convincing the EPA to take a rational, reasonable approach on this.”
The promise of precision agriculture “continues to generate a lot of discussion,” Echols said, and to insure that the cotton industry can be an early beneficiary of new, space age technologies, the Council is working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the USDA on Ag2020, a program aimed at developing practical applications of remote sensing technology for agriculture.
“In 2000, the Council, along with the soybean, corn, and wheat associations, entered into cooperative agreements with Ag2020 to begin field testing certain applications for growers. For cotton, remote sensing, using satellite imagery for determining the location of certain insects offers promise of selectively applying insecticides, rather than spraying an entire field. Similar concepts are proposed for use of plant growth regulators and for water management.”
Last year, Echols said, the Council, working with members of its Precision Ag Task Force, helped to coordinate proposals for federal research funding. Louisiana State University was awarded a grant to conduct research of the farm of producer Jay Hardwick, and NASA and the USDA are conducting research projects in cooperation with Mississippi State University on producer Kenneth Hood's farm and with Cotton Incorporated and the University of California, Davis, on Ted Sheely's farm.