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More than 100 million households in 70 countries around the world depend on cotton production. For most cotton farmers, two-thirds of whom are in the developing world, this cash crop is their only means of income.
One of the world’s oldest commercial crops, there is archaeological evidence that wild cotton was used to make cloth as early as 5000 B.C.. Cotton was first cultivated over 3,000 years ago in India.
Cotton is one of the oldest crops in the world and has played a central role in supporting the development of the textile industry. Today the largest producing countries are the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and various countries in central and western Africa.
The world price of cotton has experienced a decline in recent decades. In 2001 and 2002, cotton prices fell to US$0.91/kg, the lowest level in 30 years. Although the current conventional price is experiencing a revival, it is still equivalent to only 30% of its value in the 1980s.
The highly subsidized cotton industry in the United States, the European Union (EU), China, and other producing countries adds further pressure to prices. Cotton producers in the United States receive approximately US$4.2 billion in government subsidies. This is equivalent to the value of their entire crop.
It’s the cotton farmers in the global South who suffer the most from the low global cotton prices, as they rarely receive subsidies.
The alternative: Fair Trade cotton
Products made with Fair Trade Certified cotton have been sold in Canada since 2006. Fair Trade Certified cotton is currently grown by 13 organizations of producers, primarily located in Peru, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and India.
Through Fair Trade, cotton farmers receive a minimum price which covers the costs of sustainable production. They also receive a Fair Trade premium which allows them to invest in sustainable social and economic development projects, such as schools, roads or business development. Fair Trade standards in cotton ensure the following:
- Fair Trade minimum prices for organic cotton are set 20 percent higher than the Fair Trade conventional minimum prices.The Fair Trade minimum prices for cotton are set at different levels depending on the producing region.
- Producers receive a Fair Trade premium of EUR 0.05€ per kilo of Fair Trade seed cotton. This is used by the producer organizations for social and economic investments such as education and health services, processing equipment, and loans to members.
- Environmental standards restrict the use of agrochemicals and encourage sustainability.
- Pre-export lines of credit are given to the producer organizations if requested, of up to 60 % of the purchase price.
Fair Trade cotton producers are usually small family farms organized in co-operatives or associations, which the farmers own and govern democratically. The only exception is in India and Pakistan, where some cotton-producing communities sell to a Promoting Body. The Promoting Body is responsible for sharing the benefits generated by Fair Trade sales with individual farmers.
Cotton production uses more pesticides than any other crop in the world. 10% of all pesticides used across the globe, including 25% of all insecticides consumed, go towards spraying cotton fields. The pesticides can have a devastating impact on farmers’ health. They can also contaminate local water sources and make their way into the food chain, poisoning insects, fish, birds, and humans.
The irrigation of cotton fields is also a significant cause for concern, as it leads to the depletion of freshwater. In fact, the world’s freshwater supplies have fallen by more than a quarter in the last few decades, and cotton, rice, and wheat farming alone account for one third of this decline.
Fair Trade producers adhere to strict environmental standards, and are encouraged to move towards organic production where possible.
All about the fluffy stuff
Cotton is grown throughout the globe’s warmer regions. There are five main types of cotton produced around the world: Egyptian, Sea Island, American Pima, Asiatic and Upland. Cotton can be grown both under rain-fed and irrigated conditions.
Cotton plants are leafy, green shrubs that can grow up to 3.5 meters in height, although they are typically trimmed to about 1.2 meters on commercial farms. Cotton fibre grows in the fruit, or cotton boll, that emerges from the plant’s cream and pink flowers.
Cotton fibre is separated from its seed and processed into a wide variety of products including clothing, household cloth products, cotton balls, and much more. The seed can be crushed to produce cottonseed oil, a popular cooking oil, and the leaves can be used as mulch.
|Did you know?||
Whereas cotton accounted for 88% of all our fibre needs in the 1940s, it's since fallen to just 44%. This is partly because of the growing use of synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon.