Should farmers be producing food rather than cotton?

Cotton is for millions of people, in some of the world’s poorest countries, a vital and unique link to the global economy. As a ‘cash crop’, it provides a major source of income to pay for health services, education, transport and other vital family needs. The International Cotton Advisory Committee estimates that there are 250 million people who work in the wider cotton industry each year, positioning cotton as a major source of livelihood. However, population growth, water scarcity and finite arable land are growing concerns of experts in the field of food security, and this raises the question of ‘cotton or food?’.

Positioning these two agricultural products as mutually exclusive, polar opposites does not reflect the reality on the ground in large parts of the developing world where cotton is grown. They overlap in many ways. For example, farmers often use some of the inputs used for cotton crop protection or soil enrichment on their agriculture plots used for food. In other parts of the world, cotton production fits into a highly-desirable crop rotation cycle that includes food crops, and contributes to soil improvement and pest control.

Also, many of the techniques promoted by the Better Cotton Initiative are equally relevant for agricultural food production, e.g., water conservation, Integrated Pest Management and ‘Decent Work’. Teaching a farmer to grow cotton more sustainably also teaches a farmer to grow food more sustainably.

Finally, the global climate is a factor as well in choice of crops. Cotton is a fairly resilient crop that fares better than many other food crops in warm, dry areas threatened by water scarcity linked to climate change.

In summary, BCI does not find the simple paradigm of ‘food* or cotton?’ to be a helpful way to view this topic or make policy on this issue. A much more sophisticated analysis is necessary, which takes into account many other relevant contextual factors.

*It should be noted that approximately 60% by weight of the cotton harvest is used as cooking oil and food supplement, and as feed for livestock (crushed seed).