On August 31, 2010, the Rupp Report,
Production Yes, But…” mentioned some critical issues about organic production and the
increased global awareness about rural poverty. “This focus,” the report stated, “along with
increased awareness of climate change and sustainability, has led to a proliferation of projects to
improve agricultural practices as well as raise the level of social and environmental
responsibility. In the near future it might be impossible to sell products that are produced not
only under ecological standards, but also according to social standards.”
But now, the winds have changed. As the Rupp Report has been informed, in September 2010, the
69th Plenary Meeting of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) was held in Texas and
attended by some 400 participants from around the world. The theme of the meeting was “Cotton
Industry Growth through Global Unity,” and Mozambique was welcomed as a new committee member.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the ICAC is one of the most important cotton organizations in
the world. The association, based in Washington, represents more than 40 governments of
cotton-producing, -consuming or -trading countries.
Cotton, The Global Crop — And Fiber
And cotton needs a global association. According to data from the ICAC, cotton fibers are
grown in more than 100 countries on approximately 33 million hectares — some 2.5 percent of the
world’s arable land. This means that cotton is one of the most significant crops in terms of land.
ICAC estimates indicate that if family labor, hired farm labor and workers in ancillary services
such as transportation, ginning, baling and storage are considered, a total of more than 250
million people are involved in the cotton sector.
And the facts and figures are impressive: In the 2009-10 year, the estimated value of 22
million tons of world cotton production at an average world price of 78 cents per pound of lint, or
$1.72 per kilogram, totaled approximately $37 billion.
Cotton — Still Under Fire
For years, as it seems to the public eye, cotton producers didn’t care much about the
environment. In many school books around the world, there are still obscure pictures of children
working in dirty spinning mills. A typical example given to show how “bad” cotton was is the drying
up of the Aral Sea as a result of the massive irrigation of cotton based on very old Soviet plans
to cultivate this fiber. But times have changed. On the one hand, the consciousness about natural
resources is rising; and, on the other hand, the world’s population needs food. This vicious circle
occupies many international organizations as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) all over
the world, basically in a fight against the cotton-growing industry. It seems that these stories
have now reached the ICAC, too.
A New Approach
During the introductory session of the ICAC Plenary Meeting, Executive Director Dr. Terry
Townsend pointed out that, regardless of cotton’s positive impacts and the benefits gained by
consumers and also regardless of current research data, cotton has received sharp criticism for
having negative environmental impacts and for social abuses. Criticism of the cotton industry and
cotton production comes not only from commercial competitors or from NGOs outside the cotton
sector, but also from government publications.
Townsend suggested cotton advocates should listen to the criticism and respond using
appropriate strategies, to enhance cotton’s performance as well as to confront egregious
misinformation campaigns. They must also be aggressive in telling the true story. And there is a
lot to say.
For example, Townsend said, the allegation that cotton accounts for 25 percent of all
pesticide use globally is completely false. In 2009, cotton accounted for 6.2 percent of global
pesticide sales. Water conservation is another big issue for the future. Cotton is alleged to be a
water-intensive crop, but it uses between 2 and 3 percent of world agricultural water, equal in
proportion to cotton-cultivated acreage.
U.S. cotton cultivation requires 45-percent less water today than 25 years ago, and
conservation tillage has reduced soil erosion significantly, it was reported. Insecticide
applications have been declining since 1996, owing to the use of biotechnology as well as other
modern technologies. In Texas, some 25,000 people are employed directly in the cotton industry, and
supporting industries and trades employ many more.
A Lot To Tell
There is still a big job to do to tell consumers, and even more to the NGOs, that the cotton
industry has improved considerably over the years. For example, it was reported, farm prices,
production costs and retail demand are constraining the economic sustainability of cotton
production. Furthermore, while biotechnology has improved yields and qualities, further
improvements to the economic sustainability of cotton production will be realized through advances
in drought and salt tolerance varieties and in nutrient absorption.
October 12, 2010