Technology for the Win: The Future of Cotton

Sometimes it seems like our society measures technological progress by the latest version of the iPhone. It’s certainly true that advances in computing technology and artificial intelligence are sexier than most of what comes out of agricultural labs. That said, the fact that the world’s population has more than doubled over the past century is clear evidence that we’re pretty good at figuring out how to feel.

Technology for the Win

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As it turns out, our agricultural scientists are also pretty good at figuring out how to extract value from crops. Cotton technology offers a handful of examples of this broad trend.

Biodiesel?

Environmental and economic concerns—plus the irrefutable fact that the world has a finite supply of oil—have accelerated the search for long-term alternatives to petroleum in recent years.

We’ve made progress on several fronts, and far faster than many skeptics anticipated. Biodiesel, an organic fuel that’s derived from plant matter and compatible with standard diesel engines, is a big part of the reason why. Like corn, soybeans and other common crops, the cotton plant harbors a significant amount of energy. Although more cotton research is needed, it’s possible that the cottonseed—the plant’s most energy-dense component—contains more energy per pound than the alternatives.

A Partial Solution to the Global Food Crisis?

Many agricultural advances begin in the developed world—North America, Europe and Australia—and then spread to developing countries, where farming tends to be relatively inefficient and driven less by the profit motive than by old-fashioned necessity. So it’s no surprise that a potential breakthrough in our neck of the woods could have big ramifications for farmers and consumers in the world’s poorest precincts.

As it currently stands, the cottonseed needs to be processed in a certain way to remove undesirable compounds in its husk. That increases the cost and decreases the efficiency of cottonseed oil production. However, scientists may be on the cusp of breeding a cotton variety that doesn’t produce any of these compounds. That would make it much cheaper and easier to produce cottonseed oil, potentially rendering it more affordable for cash-strapped consumers—and increasing the availability of healthy calories for people who don’t normally get enough to eat.

Precision Agriculture

Improved communication technology is behind a rapidly emerging field known as precision agriculture, which gives farmers more information—and control over—formerly vexing things like soil moisture and fertility. Precision agriculture is increasingly common in the cotton belt, especially its drier western half. With more insight as to which plants need water, fertilizer and other elements of care, farmers can achieve the same—or better—yields with fewer resources. In an increasingly crowded, resource-strapped world, that’s indisputably a good thing.

Learning to Sip

Cotton has always been a drought-resistant crop—there’s a reason it was grown in bone-dry places like Egypt and Mesopotamia back in the day. In modern times, it does great in semi-arid regions like West Texas. But in the driest parts of the cotton belt, including southwestern Arizona and California’s Central Valley, cotton needs a little help from man-made irrigation systems.

As with other dryland crops, such as wheat and lettuce, improved irrigation techniques and selective breeding can help cotton do more with less. New, ground-based irrigation systems that water up, not down, can reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation on hot days. Meanwhile, better breeding has created a new generation of cotton plants that require even less water.

Who said plant science was boring? These are just four recent or ongoing innovations in one small sector of the agricultural economy. Similar work is being done on a host of other familiar crops and food systems. Intrigued about what the future might bring? Stay tuned to find out.

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