To describe cotton as ubiquitous is almost an understatement. The textile is so much a part of modern life as to be nearly invisible.
From Egyptian cotton bed sheets (said to be the most luxurious in the world) to the towels you use after a shower; or the undergarments, blue jeans, shirts and socks that you might wear – all originate from a small white boll, or seedpod, that is cultivated around the world. This makes cotton one of the world’s most important commodities, and the most valuable non-food agricultural crop.
Africa is an important producer and the continent has a significant role further along the value chain as a manufacturer of apparel. Africa grows just under 10% of the world’s total cotton harvest, but unlike any other region it is the smallholder farmer, rather than large-scale plantations, that grow this crop.
Cottonseed is also used to extract edible oil that is used, especially in West Africa, in both animal feed and products like margarine. Out of the 12 leading African cotton-producing countries, eight are in West Africa.
The rest of Africa’s cotton growing takes place among four zones along a north–south strip stretching from the Nile Valley to South Africa. The most important zone is that of the Nile Valley. Egypt has long been a leading African producer.
The Origin Africa conference in Mauritius, organised under the aegis of the African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation (ACTIF), took place over two days in September and drew delegates from across the continent and further afield; from Asia, the Americas, the US and Europe.
The first day’s presentations were taken up with the issues concerning cotton production and the various international crop certification options. One of the principal organisations offering global cotton production standards is the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Its representative, Romain Deveze, described how the BCI is bringing an integrated approach to tackling the vulnerabilities of the complex supply chain to ensure the industry’s sustainability.
The BCI works with about one million farmers, or 8.8% of the global total who grow the crop, to reduce the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and water while increasing farmers yields and the take-up of organic fertilisers.
These are important objectives, for, as the Environmental Justice Network has reported, cotton accounts for 26% of global insecticide releases – more than any other single crop. Almost 2kg of hazardous pesticides are applied to every hectare of land under cotton cultivation.
These troubling statistics are just the latest chapter in the awful history of a crop that underpinned the transatlantic slave trade and caused millions of Africans to be abducted and subjugated to a life of hard labour in the cotton plantations of the southern US.
The cotton industry became one of the world’s largest industries, and most of the world’s supply of cotton came from the US South, fuelled by the labour of slaves on plantations.
Even with the Union’s victory in the civil war, the fortunes of plantation slaves changed little. Many became sharecroppers, eking out a precarious living on a small plot of land growing cotton.
From 1803 to 1937, the US was the world’s leading cotton exporter. Its cotton industry became a powerful political lobby, able to sway successive administrations to grant subsidies to cotton farmers. Cotton’s financial and political influence in the 19th century has been likened to that of the oil industry in the early 21st century.