Magazine article Geographical

Cottoning On: Whether It's the Disastrous Environmental Problems Associated with Its Production or the Aggressive Trade Tactics Regularly Employed by Some of Its Producers, Cotton Presents Consumers with an Ethical Minefield. but Thanks to a Series of New Initiatives, Says Victoria Lambert, It's Becoming Increasingly Easy to Purchase This Clothing Staple with a Clear Conscience

Magazine article Geographical

Cottoning On: Whether It's the Disastrous Environmental Problems Associated with Its Production or the Aggressive Trade Tactics Regularly Employed by Some of Its Producers, Cotton Presents Consumers with an Ethical Minefield. but Thanks to a Series of New Initiatives, Says Victoria Lambert, It's Becoming Increasingly Easy to Purchase This Clothing Staple with a Clear Conscience

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Next time you pull on an ordinary cotton t-shirt, think of David and Goliath--and then ask yourself, whose side are you on? For the world's cotton producers are locked in an unequal struggle of huge proportions that could see the industry wiped out in some small countries. And you, the consumer, could be the nearest thing to a cavalry that the Davids of this world are ever going to see.

Cast in the role of giant is the USA, the world's third-largest cotton producer (after China and India); lined up in the diminutive role of opponent is a loose collection of countries that includes tiny nations such as Mali--and several others in sub-Saharan Africa--and much larger nations, including Brazil. The fight is over subsidies.

Currently, the US government supports its cotton farmers to the tune of US$3-4billion annually. The effect is to allow them to compete on a playing field that is so far from level that they are actually able to produce cotton for sale at a net cost to the USA. This drives prices down the world over, and means that poorer developing countries--where more than a billion people are involved in cotton production--see the value of their exports fall, and their inhabitants struggle to eat. According to Oxfam, US cotton farmers received more in subsidies in 2001 than the value of the entire GDP of Burkina Faso, where more than two million people depend on cotton for their livelihoods.

Now, following a landmark ruling by the WTO last December (in response to a protest against such schemes launched by Brazil in 2005), the USA has been told to clean up its act. It's also under pressure to slash farm subsidies in the Doha round of global trade talks. Needless to say, the National Cotton Council of America, the industry's lobbying organisation, isn't happy. 'Recent trends in the world cotton market demonstrate that the USA isn't adversely affecting world prices,' says its chairman, John Pucheu. 'Last year, US cotton acreage fell by 29 per cent and is expected to continue to decline this year. US exports fell significantly in 2006 and have declined overall as a percentage of world exports. It isn't credible to assert that US cotton is currently causing serious prejudice to anyone in the world cotton market.'

Yet that is exactly what most countries are saying, with Argentina, India and Brazil all claiming to have lost millions, and in some cases billions, of US dollars because of the low prices brought about by US domestic policy.

At the UK's Department for International Development, a close eye is being kept on many of these concerns. 'We want trade-distorting subsidies reduced, and these reductions implemented more quickly' says a spokesperson. 'In Africa, we're supporting initiatives to improve production methods" Meanwhile, perhaps it would be simpler for the consumer to choose--when possible--to buy cotton produced somewhere other than the USA.

AN UNQUENCHABLE THIRST

But there are other issues to be considered. Cotton production is heavily dependent on water. If it's cultivated in an area of moderate rainfall, production will be healthy; however, much cotton is now grown in areas that are naturally drier, so extensive irrigation is needed to ensure success. It takes 20,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of cotton; that's six pints to make one cotton bud. The crop's thirst has already led to environmental problems in Uzbekistan, the world's sixth largest producer and second largest exporter (after the USA).

According to Steve Trent, director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), the worst effect of the drive to produce cotton in what is essentially quite an arid region has been the draining of the Aral Sea. 'This was once the world's fourth largest in land body of water; he says. 'Now it has been reduced to 15 per cent of its former size. This means that all native species offish have been eradicated, thriving wetlands have dried up and the tens of thousands of people who depended on the lake for their livelihoods have lost their jobs. …

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