Cotton vs. Food?

Turns out, the “fabric of our lives” is in direct competition with food for global farmland.

cotton plant
Cotton may look innocent, but it's competing for space that could be used to plant food. (Imagens/Delfim Matins/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

You know that hipster T-shirt? The one you like wearing to your Saturday-morning farmers’ market? Turns out, it’s got a definitive connection to global food supplies in a way you probably never realized.

When global food shortages in 2008 and 2011 spurred rioting in countries like Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere, much of the finger pointing was aimed at the use of crops in ethanol production as a key culprit. After all, growing corn for fuel meant less land was being put to use for the production of affordable, nutritious food. Grain prices skyrocketed, countries began limiting exports, and we got a very real taste of the link between the world’s energy needs and the food requirements of a burgeoning planet.

But according to a recent story in The Guardian, another crop was at play, impacting world food prices: cotton.

“The plantations of the three largest cotton growers—the U.S., China and India—alone account for 50 million acres, 42 percent of all agricultural land. In contrast, food crops amount to some 40 million acres and fuel crops to 32 million acres,” reports Pamela Ravasio.

“In other words: It is the ‘white gold,’ cotton—not fuel—that is in direct competition with food,” she points out.

But as Mother JonesTom Philpott points out, there may be a problem with Ravasio’s math.

“I had a surprisingly hard time finding just how much farmland the world devotes to cotton, so I contacted Stephen McDonald, a cotton analyst for the USDA's Economic Research Service. "Of the major field crops (wheat, feed grains, rice, soybeans, and cotton), cotton accounts for about 4% of global area," he wrote in an email. Adding in food crops like vegetables and fruit "pushes cotton even lower than 4%," he added. Nor, he wrote, does cotton acreage approach 42 percent of farmland in either the US, Brazil, or China,” writes Philpott.

Of course the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, which keeps an eye on global prices of commodities like grains, sugars, oilseeds and more, is terribly unpredictable. A price uptick, reported at the beginning of this year, was a reminder of the seriousness and unpredictability of the world’s output of food. And just yesterday, India announced a ban on the export of cotton to ensure they have adequate supplies at home.

“Indeed, for the major cereals, harvests are at record levels, and stockpiles that had fallen perilously low in recent years are being rebuilt. But demand is also rising briskly in fast-growing developing countries. So the world badly needs the extra output that might be possible if erratic weather, especially blistering heat waves, had not taken hold in so many places,” wrote Justin Gillis in The New York Times last month.

What that means for fashion retailers is unclear, and for eaters, cotton is the newest link in our complex global food system.

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