The Cotton Conundrum

Andrew Sullivan —  Mar 17 2012 @ 7:33am

Pamela Ravasio wonders if we are designating our land resources appropriately:

[T]he plantations of the three largest cotton growers – the US, China and India – alone account for 50 million acres, 42% of all agricultural land. In contrast, food crops amount to some 40 million acres and fuel crops to 32 million acres. In other words: It is the 'white gold', cotton, not fuel, that is in direct competition with food.

Tom Philpott takes issue with Ravasio's numbers but thinks her overall point has merit:

According to the UN's Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), global cotton production doubled between 1960 and 2001. In that period, some of the most hunger-prone countries on the planet shifted significant farmland to cotton for the global market, hoping to build wealth from a valuable commodity crop. …

But as production ramped up, the global price of cotton plunged, the FAO report shows, driven down by abundance as well as competition from synthetic alternatives like polyester. The price drop meant severe disappointment for cotton producers in poor countries in Africa (while US cotton growers treaded water with a boost from crop subsidies).

A while back, Stacy Mitchell crunched some stark numbers on the cheap clothes that resulted from cheap cotton:

In the mid-1990s, the average American bought 28 items of clothing a year. Today, we buy 59 items. We also throw away an average of 83 pounds of textiles per person, mostly discarded apparel, each year. That’s four times as much as we did in 1980, according to an EPA analysis of municipal waste streams [pdf].