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Cotton: The Fabric Of Our Demise?

Biofuels may be getting the finger right now, but The New Scientist’s Fred Pearce argues that we should be sticking it to other non-food crops, too, for gobbling up valuable farmland and scarce natural resources.

Pearce goes after King Cotton, whose cultivation entails all manner of environmental ills. Apparently, the cultivation of cotton soaks up vast amounts of water, long before it gets processed into a fluffy bath towel. It takes 25 bathtubs of water to produce one cotton T-shirt, according to Pearce; the global production of the crop has already drained major bodies of water and taken a heavy toll on the Indus and Nile Rivers.

Cotton cultivation also uses about 10 percent of the world’s pesticides and 22.5 percent of all insecticides, and traces of the poisons have already surfaced in major American bodies of water. Organic cotton may be less toxic, but it doesn’t seem to make a dent in terms of the crop’s land and water usage.

But any pushback against King Cotton will be a Goliath endeavor. There are--surprise!--enormous subsidies supporting the industry in the U.S., totaling about $3 billion per year. The developing world’s cotton farmers may have scored a major victory last month, when the WTO struck down America’s final appeal to protect the pay-outs. But flattening the global cotton trade won’t do a thing to remedy cotton’s huge ecological footprint. In fact, it could make it worse, as the sun-reliant crop has also encouraged deforestation in developing countries, where pesticide use tends to be even less regulated. (Reports of child labor and other human impacts aren’t promising either.)

So what’s to be done? The trouble with cotton is that there isn’t an immediate substitute for the crop as a textile. No synthetic can match it, and I, for one, wouldn't leap to trade in my cotton shirts for hemp. On the demand side, I think there are viable ways to cut back on the usage of cottonseed oil and cotton by-products. But since it isn’t realistic to expect cotton farming to be scaled back in any significant manner, we need to assess how we’re going to deal with the damage. Given escalating water scarcity and the looming water wars, I expect that the industry is already bracing itself for the backlash.

--Suzy Khimm