Growing cotton in space could help make crop production more sustainable on Earth


The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) has organised a competition called the ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge. Researchers can now submit their ideas on how to grow cotton in the microgravity environment of the International Space Stations (ISS). The aim of the competition is to figure out how to efficiently grow cotton in space so that it can be grown more efficiently on Earth, and, in turn, more sustainably.


Problems with cotton production

The way that we grow cotton on Earth isn’t very sustainable. It is an extremely water-intensive crop. As the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) states on their website:


It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans.


We also know that India, Pakistan and West Africa are responsible for a major proportion of the global population of cotton, which is concerning since these countries often suffer from serious drought. On the one hand, production of this crop sustains the livelihoods of people in developing countries, but on the other hand, it is leaving them without a precious resource that they desperately need. As an article in The Guardian points out:


The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water.


Cotton production isn’t just unsustainable in terms of its water usage. It also impacts the environment through its intensive use of harmful agrochemicals. As WWF highlights:


2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively. Unsafe use of agricultural chemicals has severe health impacts on workers in the field and on ecosystems that receive excess doses that run-off from farms.


There has already been a push to make cotton more sustainable. For example, the Better Cotton Initiative, which has support from WWF, has worked with 43,000 cotton farmers in Pakistan so that they can grow the crop using less water. Nevertheless, as promising as this initiative is, all of the major producers of cotton – especially countries like India, which suffer from drought – need to be using less water. As well as fewer pesticides.


A much-needed competition

Researchers submitting their ideas for the Cotton Sustainability Challenge may be able to demonstrate new ways to significantly reduce water use and minimise the use of agricultural chemicals. CASIS said in a statement that:


Researchers are encouraged to submit concepts focused on, but not limited to: fluid dynamics or fluid flow to improve seed germination and plant water-use efficiency…and remote sensing applications to improve cotton production through crop monitoring.


Around 90 countries produce an estimated 20 million tons of cotton every year. It is a crop that we depend upon. It makes up nearly half the fibre used to make clothes and textiles worldwide. So if we’re not willing to give up cotton, then we need to drastically change how it is made.

This thirsty crop has already been responsible for the drying up of the Aral Sea basin in Central Asia. In addition, the use of pesticides has poisoned both farmland and people, resulting in a massive increase in the number of people suffering from throat cancers and respiratory diseases.

So let’s hope that the Cotton Sustainability Challenge produces some truly innovative solutions, for the sake of the planet, our health and the lives of present and future generations. CASIS will be announcing the winners of the competition on 23 April 2018.


About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs.


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