New Internationalist

The Cotton Chain – The Facts

Issue 399

Backbreaking work, temperamental yields, high production costs, an uncertain market, poor wages and working conditions, environmental fallout and the manipulations of the rich and powerful – these can turn the white gold into fool’s gold. New Internationalist does the sums.

Who grows cotton?

Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures
Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures

Who manufactures cotton?

• The demand for cotton on the international market has doubled since the 1980s.

• Nearly $1.1 billion in organic cotton products were bought in 2006, nearly double the previous year’s figure of $0.6 billion. Sales worth $2.6 billion are predicted by 2008.

Who exports cotton?

Qilai Shen
Qilai Shen

Cotton glut

Despite low prices, US cotton production has continued to increase thanks to massive subsidies.

• By 2002 US cotton was being dumped on the world market at 61% below the cost of production.

• The average worth of the households of cotton farmers in the US is $800,000. Some 75% of the billions of dollars in government subsidies they receive goes to just 12% of the US cotton producers.5

• US taxpayers have paid cotton farmers $14 billion between 1995 and 2003.6

• There is predicted to be approximately 45 million bales of unsold cotton stocks by the end of 2007.15

• The costs of production of 440 grammes of cotton are three times higher in the US than in Burkina Faso in West Africa. The amount the US Government spends on cotton subsidies is greater than the entire Gross Domestic Product of Burkina Faso.2

• There are 25,000 farmers who are dependent on high-tech cotton production in the US, while in India there are 4 million farmers dependent on cotton. Close to 60 million Indians are directly or indirectly dependent on cotton.2

Thirsty cotton

New engineered varieties of high-yield cotton demand more water than older, hardier varieties.

• Nearly 50% of the global water problems associated with cotton cultivation and textile processing can be attributed to foreign demand for cotton products.9

• The Aral Sea, formerly in the Soviet Union and now in Uzbekistan, has lost 60% of its size and 80% of its volume since 1960 as its two main river sources have been diverted in order to irrigate a number of crops, the most prominent of which is cotton. The Aral has gone from being the 4th largest lake in the world to the 8th largest. Uzbekistan is a major cotton exporter.

Chemical cotton

• Cultivated on just 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, cotton uses 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 8 to 10% of the chemical fertilizers.1

Cotton prices

Global downturn – long-term trend.

• Cotton has witnessed a 50% drop in value in the last decade.6

• There has been a six-decade decline in the world price of cotton lint from $1.54 per kilo in the post-War period to $1.14 per kilo in 2004/05 in real terms.10

• The withdrawal of subsidies to large US cotton agribusiness could raise world cotton prices by between 11% and 26%.7

Downstream cotton

The global textile and apparel industry employs 23.6 million workers, 75% of whom are women.

• Between 2003 and 2005 alone 25% of US textile workers lost their jobs.5

l China dominates the world textile and apparel markets – 55% of the US market and 90% of sections of the Japanese market.5

• The end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) in 2004 resulted in a dramatic shift in textile production and trade. In 2005 Chinese exports to the US increased by 43% and to the EU by 44%.4

• The MFA also meant that textile exports from sub-Saharan Africa to the US dropped by 17% and to the EU by 11%.12

• The price of clothing for US consumers in real dollars dropped by 28% between 1995 and 2003.13

  1. Pesticide News 74, December 2006.
  2. The Fabric of Cotton, Background paper, Working Draft, The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), July 2006.
  4. Maquila Solidarity Network.
  5. Stephen Yafa, Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, Penguin, 2005.
  6. John Liebhardt, 'White Gold or Fool's Gold', Multinational Monitor, 06/2005.
  7. Cultivating Poverty: The impact of US cotton subsidies on Africa, Oxfam Briefing Paper 2002.
  8. Water footprint of cotton consumption, UNESCO, September 2005.
  9. Water Resource Management, 2006.
  10. Cotton and poverty in Africa, McMaster University, PhD thesis.
  11. World Trade Reports, July 2006, World Trade Organization.
  12., 13 February 2007.
  13. The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton, Environmental Justice Foundation, February 2007.
  14. The Forces Shaping World Cotton Consumption, Economic Research Service, USDA.
  15. Cotlook A Index,

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This article was originally published in issue 399

New Internationalist Magazine issue 399
Issue 399

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