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The Price of Cotton

April 26, 2009

Part 1 of a 2 part feature

by Mike Sanch 12/2/08

“Cotton production is hurting our fellow man and our planet; it is up to the consumer to change their buying habits to change the current detrimental effects of the cotton cycle”

If you look at the tag on your shirt or pants, most likely it would say either the name of a third world country, and/or the word “cotton”.

Cotton production is advertised as the “Fabric of Our Lives” in advertisements funded by the cotton production lobby, yet it hasn’t always been that way.

For centuries people depended on leathers, wools, canvas and other natural products provided by the Earth to clothe themselves. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that cotton gained popularity and became an important fabric for textiles of different uses.

Currently, everywhere you look people are wearing 100% cotton tees, and heavily dyed cotton denim blue jeans as if it always was meant to be.

The next time you have an opportunity to shop for your clothes; it may be useful for yourself and the environment to consider your choices when purchasing clothing.

So, when you’re looking for your next pair of Hollister jeans and t-shirts, consider these facts about cotton.

The Origins of Cotton

The cultivation of cotton has been utilized by humans for centuries. The earliest cultivation of cotton dates back to the 5th millennium B.C. The early cultivation was centered in the early Indus Valley Civilizations. The ancient people of China, India, and Egypt all benefited from it’s cultivation and used it to clothe themselves, make bags, fishnets, as well as many other uses.

The western world was exposed to cotton by Arab traders in the 1st century A.D., where their word for the plant was, “qutn”, thus this is where we get the word “cotton”.

In the Americas, cotton cultivation dates back 5000 years, where evidence of its use has been traced back to present day Mexico. The indigenous Mexican strain of species scientifically known as, “Gossypium hirsutm” is responsible for over 90% of the cotton production in the world. In Mexico, a variety of wild cotton species still exist today.

Cotton was generally considered an exotic import to the western world for much of its’ history. Before the implementation of cotton as a clothing standard, wool was the primary fabric used by Western Europeans.

It wasn’t until some key inventions in the 1700’s that made it possible and practical for the western world to begin to develop an appetite for the soft, fuzzy white plant.

Lewis Paul and John Wyatt both of Birmingham, England, invented a Roller Spinning Machine in 1738, and the Spinning Jenny by Richard Arkwright’s in 1764 made it possible to produce textiles derived from cotton more efficient. These new advancements made it possible to use cotton more practically. It also helped spark the Industrial revolution.

However, sowing, growing, and harvesting cotton was still a difficult task to accomplish. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that cotton production became predominantly mechanized in the United States. Until that point a combination of slave labor and cheap harsh slave like conditions was used to harvest cotton.

Around the world in underdeveloped countries, cotton is still picked by hand; most of the time using child labor and harsh working conditions that exposes the workers to pesticides.

Where is Cotton grown?

Cotton is grown in many countries. In fact, cotton harvesting takes place in over 100 countries around the world. China leads the world’s cotton production by producing close to 24% of the world’s cotton supply. The United States follows close behind with 19%, India with 16%, Pakistan 10%, Brazil with 5% and Uzbekistan with 4%.

Total world cotton cultivations accounts for 31 million hectares of land, which represents about 2.4% of the total available arable land. About 20 million farmers worldwide depend on cotton production entirely, while another 30 million farmers cultivate cotton on a rotational basis, along with other crops.

Some of the concerns that cotton production causes is the salinization of arable land, desertification, and harmful pesticide residue accumulated in the surrounding environment and humans.

Cotton is Thirsty

Cotton production has many detriments to both environmental concerns and to humans’ standard of living in the World. Perhaps none is more devastating on a large scale as cotton’s thirst for water. Water is life’s most precious resource, as all life on the planet needs water to survive.

The production of cotton, which includes the cultivation and the processing of the harvest, requires great amounts of water. Over half (53%) of all the cotton grown in the world is grown on irrigated farmland, which accounts for 73% of the total amount of cotton produced worldwide. Cotton, in most places, is grown in irrigated fields because the rainwater where cotton is grown is not sufficient to grow cotton.

The most popular way to irrigate the cotton crop is the flood or furrow method of irrigating. This is due for its simplicity and cost effectiveness when installing the irrigation system. However, this method of irrigation is the least efficient method possible to bring water to the crop.

By using this method, the most water that can reach the plant that will be useful to the crop will be around a 40% rate of efficiency. In other words, over half of the water used goes to waste when attempting to irrigate the cotton fields in this manner.

More efficient methods of irrigation do exist, however the initial capital investment makes it all but impossible for most farmers to install and utilize the technologically advanced methods of irrigation.

A serious consequence of poor irrigation techniques results in the salinization of the land. Salinization is defined by the event when salt content of land exceeds normal levels to the point where most crops will not grow. One third of the world’s arable land is presently being affected, or is in danger of being affected by salinization.

Presently, an estimated 4% of the world’s arable land has been abandoned because of the direct connection to cotton cultivation that caused soil salinization. Other detriments to irrigation of cotton are water shortages and pollutants being sent downstream.

One example of the consequences of the effects poorly designed irrigation systems is the case of the Aral Sea, in Uzbekistan.

Once the world’s fourth largest inland sea, it has been shrunk to 10% percent of its original size. This has caused a once thriving fishing industry to become a graveyard of ships and further economic collapse in the region. Former fishing ports are now 40 miles from the sea.

The reasons for the shrinkage of the sea are due because of Soviet era irrigation projects that diverted much of the incoming waters to cotton fields, and other crops throughout the region.

It is known worldwide as an environmental disaster. The remaining sea and exposed former sea bed is polluted with pesticides and fertilizer runoff. Windblown salt from the seabed adds to the salinization problems surrounding the sea, health problems have resulted, and even the climate has changed. Harsher hotter and drier summers, and colder and longer winters have been recorded. A true catastrophe and words doesn’t do it justice. The pictures are telling.


In the United States, irrigation techniques have greatly been improved. With pivot irrigation and computer controlled irrigation systems, the efficiency of the irrigation is much better than compared to the rest of the world. But, again we must consider that only 19% of the world’s cotton is grown here.


Annually, about 15% of all cotton yields are lost to damages caused by insect infestations; bacterial plant pathogens, viruses, and fungal count for the other losses in production.

Because of the difficulty to track pesticide use in developing countries, it is estimated that 11% of the world’s pesticides is used for the production of cotton, despite the fact that it is only grown on 2.4% of the arable land worldwide.

Insecticides applied to cotton account for as much as 25% of the world’s consumption of insecticides. In developing countries, think India and China, as much as 50% of pesticides of total pesticide applications are being used for the production of cotton.

In developing countries, the application of the insecticides is not regulated, with little or no safety regulations. Farmers expose themselves to harmful chemicals when applying them to their crops. Over half, (52%), of the world’s cotton fields are treated with the chemicals by applying them with hand tools, and with no respirator to protect the inhalation of the chemicals.

Most of the chemicals that are being used on cotton are categorized by the World Health Organization as being hazardous to humans. These include, but are not limited to: monocrotphos, triazofos, parhion, parthi-methyl, phosphanidon, methamidophos, demetons-methyl and others.

Many of the chemicals being used in developing nations are not even patented, posing a serious health risk, and exposes the public to environmental contaminates on a global scale.

The negative effects of pesticide use are recognized, yet statistical data is hard to obtain in developing countries. The World Health Organization estimate that annually, up to 40,000 lives are taken by the overexposure to harmful chemicals in the quest to produce cotton. This represents roughly a tenth of the world’s casualties in agricultural production.

Another related circumstance is a haunting phenomenon occurring in India. Many farmers in India, in the hopes for economic gain have turned to growing cotton, as opposed to food crops that brings less income for their land.

The Indian farmers sometimes suffer insect infestation and rush to take out loans to buy pesticides from local dealers, (in many cases American companies like Dupont supplied chemicals) in order to treat their land.

This cycle in many cases results in losses to the uneducated Indian farmers, and sometimes leads to the farmer’s land being repossessed and the Indian farmer is left with nothing. In 2006 there were over 700 cotton farmer suicides recorded in India. In one case, the farmer drank the pesticide he had bought in order to kill himself.

LINK:THE INDIAN PESTICIDE TRAP -eye opening report- via youtube

Environmental toll of pesticides.

In a 2003 study, it was found that the pesticides used for cotton production was found to be negatively affecting ecosystems in Australia.

The study found that the pesticide residue found in the surrounding ecosystem was causing lower quantity and lesser variation of water organisms.

A 1995 study examined cotton fields in Alabama and the run off associated with the fields. The study attributed the death of over 240,000 fish in the area because of the pesticide run off.

More dangers can be posed to groundwater and contamination. In 2003, a study reported to have found pesticide contamination to be detected in cola and packaged drinking water in India.

Organic Cotton

With the increasing awareness of the environment worldwide, there has been a considerable growth of interest in organic farming, and the production of organic cotton.

Organic farming is generally considered to be producing crops without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified organisms.

The United States accounts for 27% of the world’s organic cotton crop. Currently, only 3,200 hectares is being cultivated for organic cotton, compared to as much as 36,000 hectares being cultivated in 1995.

Due to low prices because of a weak market and low demand, unfavorable and unfortunate weather conditions, many farmers have abandoned organic production and returned to conventional methods. Presently only about 14 farmers with the average size of 500 hectares are producing organic cotton in the U.S., and this accounts for a quarter of the world’s supply!

One criticism of organic cotton is that it doesn’t do anything to help quench the thirst of the cotton plant.

The Role of The U.S. Government

As we have discussed, the production of cotton has many detriments to humans and the environment. Alternatives to this vicious cotton cycle are readably available. However there are serious artificial barriers set up by the United States government.

These barriers come in the form of farm subsidies for cotton farmers and laws that criminalize the cultivation of the most obvious and practical alternatives; one of which is the industrial hemp plant, which has thrived in America as a cash crop for centuries.

On average, the U.S. cotton farmer receives a farm subsidy amounting to $230 per acre of cotton planted farmland. This translates into over five times of what a farmer gets for growing a cereal crop, thus encouraging the continued production of the inefficient cotton crop.

To put these numbers in perspective, in 2005 cotton farmers collected over $3.3. billion dollars in farm subsidies alone. Furthermore, loopholes in subsidy rules, that were designed for the benefit of corporate farms, allows the industrial sized factory farm to collect payments of over $ 1 million dollars in taxpayer funded money.

In addition, as if it wasn’t enough for the tax payer to forcefully be contributing to the subsidization of the poisoning of their environment, they are also helping small farmers get run out of business. This is due in large part because the small farmer cannot compete against the subsidized factory farm that has the advantage of qualifying for farm subsidies.

The small farmer is faced with the reality that continuing farming is unprofitable because of not having access the subsidies to offset the cost of production.

The World Trade Organization declared in 2005 that U.S. farm subsidies are illegal because they distort the cotton market worldwide, and failed to save the small U.S. farmers, as it was advertised to do. In addition, the current programs that subsidize the production of cotton contribute to environmental damage.

A case can also be made that subsidies are morally wrong because it also encourages farmers to not grow food crops, thus contributing to high food prices which starve poor people on a global scale.

Consider this, in 2002 alone, the U.S. farm subsidies accounted for twice the amount of aid to the impoverished people sub-saharan Africa.


The current cotton cycle, as it sits is unsustainable. We, as a society, need to move to not allow these environmental and economic injustices to continue.

The most pragmatic solution would be to educate the consumer more about the current situation and the potential solutions.

Because, when it comes down to the necessary change, it all depends on the consumer to change their buying habits.

If the people were more informed about the ongoing dangers of cotton production and consumption, then I believe we have an opportunity to make a conscious and responsible transition to the alternatives.

Perhaps a good start would be a change in verbiage and begin describing the alternatives as the solutions.


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