(CBS).– The U.S. is the world’s leading cotton exporter, with an industry estimated to generate more than $21 billion of products and services a year. Drought and climate change are having an effect on the crop, though. So scientists in Boston are growing cotton in labs to develop new ways to reduce environmental stress.
“Virtually every major crop in the U.S. and around the world is at significant risk to climate change, and cotton is no exception to that,” Geoffrey Von Maltzahn said.
Von Maltzahn and his team at a startup called Indigo say they’ve developed a breakthrough: drought-resistant seeds.
“Water stress and drought in cotton is the most important stress in agriculture that has almost no solutions today,” Von Maltzahn said. “Remarkably, nature has found a whole bunch of solutions to that in the microbiome.”
Think of a microbiome as a plant’s gut filled with tiny microbes. Indigo discovered which ones from within a cotton plant deal with water stress. They then coat the seeds with those specific microbes, to make them more resilient in dry conditions.
“It’s allowed us to grow cotton that is better able to withstand the stress that a plant experiences with a given amount of water restriction,” Von Maltzahn said.
They say their methodology is more natural than genetically-modified, mass-produced seeds. The plants are exposed to scorching temperatures in grow rooms and then tested in the hot fields.
More than a century and a half ago, cotton dominated agriculture in the American South, first picked by generations of slaves and then share-croppers. But many farmers have abandoned cotton because of low profits and challenging conditions.
Modern-day cotton farming continues in states like Texas, but dry and hot weather has pushed farmers to get creative.
“We were looking for any way to find an edge,” said Stetson Hogue, whose family has been growing cotton for generations.
The Hogues have one of the few cotton farms in Lubbock, Texas, to survive a 4-year drought that started in 2011.
“We’ve definitely lost a few growers in the last few years,” Hogue said. “And I would say that certainly has more to do with the whole economics of farming, the whole environment that we’re dealing with.”
Like many farmers, Hogue believes the droughts he’s experienced are part of normal weather trends, not the result of climate change.
“We are used to the drought here,” Hogue told CBS News’ Adriana Diaz. “It’s just something that we’ve always had to deal with. Our weather is always changing year in and year out, and we don’t expect that to change any time soon.”
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Still, he wants seeds that can perform better in dry conditions to provide a much needed lift to profits.
“My grandad, 30-40 years ago, could buy a new tractor for $20,000,” Hogue said. “A new tractor today costs $200,000. So we’re selling our cotton today for 70 to 75 cents, he sold his cotton for 70 to 75 cents, so obviously there’s a big gap there and it’s been a challenge.
But for many cotton farms, this innovation came too late. Over the last few years, some cotton growers in the area have shut down completely. Others have diversified into other crops that can better survive dry conditions, like grapes.
“This land has been cotton, historically, for the last 60 years,” Katy Jane Seaton said. “One-hundred percent of it. And we changed our minds and decided to take a chance with a vineyard here.”
In 2015, with her cotton yields declining, Seaton poured her efforts into wine-making, since grapes are more resistant to drought.
“There is much more vitality in growing grapes. If you can keep them alive you are not beholden to the marketplace,” Seaton said.
That marketplace is sure to keep changing as the Earth gets hotter, which means more demand for seeds that can thrive in our warmer world.
You may wonder how the higher cost of producing cotton will impact U.S. consumers, and the farmers say it won’t. While the cost of producing cotton keeps increasing, they are the ones who bear the brunt of it.