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The Arabic word “qutun” is where the term “cotton” originates. In Arabic, qutun refers to fine fabric. Cotton is a global commodity and important to least-developed, developing and developed economies worldwide with a production of more than 25 million tonnes and $18 billion of annual trade. Cotton is one of the most important and profitable non-food crops but current cotton production methods are still environmentally unsustainable and can no longer be ignored.

Fun facts about cotton

  • Cotton has been used for clothing for over 7,000 years.
  • Cotton is used to make a wide range of products, including clothing, towels, bed sheets, and medical supplies like bandages and gauze.
  • Cotton is stronger when wet.
  • There are more than 50 natural species of cotton.
  • Most banknotes are made using cotton.
  • The majority of commercially grown cotton is from annual plants.
  • The cotton plant can grow up to 180 cm (6 feet) tall and has a taproot that can reach up to 180 cm (6 feet) deep.
  • Cotton is a major cash crop in many countries and provides income and livelihoods for millions of people around the world.
  • It takes approximately 2,700 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton lint.

The foundation of the fashion industry is cotton, which is one of the oldest known crops. Cotton was initially used and mentioned in India. However, it made a breakthrough at the start of the 19th century as textile production took off. Today, cotton is used to make more than one-third of all fabrics, including cotton bags. Large-scale cotton production is practiced around the world, primarily in tropical areas. Cotton is primarily grown for its fiber. However, there are uses for other plant components as well. In addition to producing cottonseed oil for human consumption, the seeds are utilized as animal feed. After harvest, cotton plant stalks can be replanted. As a result, nothing is wasted. Around the seeds of cotton plants, a soft, fluffy staple fiber known as cotton grows in a boll, or protective enclosure. The shrub-like plant is indigenous to tropical and subtropical areas of the world, including the United States, Africa, Egypt, and India. Mexico has the most varieties of wild cotton, followed by Australia and Africa. 

Cotton is a crop of immense importance. It reduces the rate of poverty in some of the least developed nations on earth, giving people everywhere a stable source of income. Also, it degrades more quickly than synthetic alternatives, reducing the quantity of plastic that enters our waterways and aiding in the preservation of our seas. Cotton is the only agricultural product that may be used to produce both food and fiber. It thrives where no other crop can because it can grow in arid environments. The developmental stages of cotton can be grouped into five, which include:  

  • The germination and emergence phase
  • Seedling establishment
  • Leaf area and canopy development
  • Flowering and boll development
  • Maturation.  

These stages don’t always have distinct transitions between them.  However, different physiological processes that function according to requirements may exist at each stage. Cotton producers can avoid numerous crop management issues if they are aware of these stage-dependent variations. This will eventually lead to improved yields and revenues.

Global demand and market trends of cotton

Up to 1 billion people rely on cotton for their livelihood, including 100 million smallholder farmers who grow the crop. About 25 million tonnes or 110 million bales of cotton are currently estimated to be produced annually, which equates to 2.5% of the world’s arable land. As of 2017, India and China are the main producers of cotton, with annual production totaling roughly 18.53 million tonnes and 17.14 million tonnes, respectively. The majority of this production is used by their respective textile industries. With sales of $4.9 billion and $2.1 billion, respectively, the United States and Africa are the top two exporters of raw cotton in that same year. $12 billion is believed to be the total value of global trade. Many smallholder farmers across different nations of the world cultivate cotton as a means of livelihood.

The top ten cotton producing countries in the year 2020

CountryQuantity produced (in tonnes)
3United States9,737,277
9Burkina Faso782,925

The main countries importing raw cotton in 2021 were China ($3.49B), Vietnam ($2.8B), Bangladesh ($2.8B), Turkey ($2.57B), and Pakistan ($1.82B). The top exporters of raw cotton were the United States ($5.6B), Brazil ($3.41B), India ($2.67B), Greece ($1.42B), and Australia ($1.41B). Due to China, India, and other nations’ high cotton demand, the United States has benefited immensely. The export share of American cotton is roughly 38%, which is greater than the combined export shares of the next five countries. Although some of the largest exporters are also textile producers, they consume a sizable portion of domestic cotton production before exporting the remainder. 

Cotton is a crop that depends on weather patterns and growing conditions, which makes the market unstable and prone to price fluctuations. The graph below displays the monthly Producer Price Index for the raw cotton commodity from January 2012 to October 2019, highlighting the three months where market factors were the primary cause of index volatility.

Major cotton-growing climates and their peculiarities

Cotton is a major agricultural crop that is grown in various climates around the world. The warm, humid climate of the tropics and subtropics is ideal for cotton growth. The required annual temperature ranges from 20 to 28 degrees, and annual rainfall requirement ranges from 50 to 100 cm. The soil should be rich in nutrients, have excellent drainage, and be saline with a high capacity to retain water. Under rainfed conditions, cotton is widely grown in most regions. Although the crop can withstand brief periods of waterlogging, lodging can still occur during periods of heavy rain. Continuous rain will hinder pollination and degrade the quality of the fiber during flowering and boll opening. Flower buds and young bolls fall when it rains a lot during flowering.

In subtropical and tropical regions like some parts of the United States, Brazil, India, and some parts of Africa, cotton production is influenced by factors such as soil type, temperature, rainfall, and other climatic conditions. In the United States, Texas produces more cotton than other regions. Total production is about 25% of the country’s cotton crop on more than 6 million acres, the equivalent of over 9,000 square miles (23,000 km2) of cotton fields. Cotton is Texas’ top cash crop, with eight producing regions and only four geographical regions. The climatic conditions, soil types, and growing techniques used in these places vary. Georgia, Mississippi, and Arkansas are a few additional leading cotton producers in the country. Due to cotton’s preference for the climate in the High Plains area of Texas, most of the state’s production is focused there.

Brazil has recently ranked among the top 5 global cotton producers. The nation is also renowned for being cotton’s second-largest exporter behind the United States. Reducing the usage of pesticides, particularly those that are extremely toxic, to safeguard their crops is a significant problem for Brazilian farmers. This is because the production of healthy cotton crops is particularly threatened by the insect pest known as the boll weevil. The boll weevil swept throughout the fields in the late 1980s and early 1990s, destroying entire crops and resulting in the loss of everything for entire families and a more than 60% decrease in Brazilian cotton production. This was among the worst crises ever brought on by pests in cotton farming.

In India, about 6 million farmers directly depend on cotton production, and 40 to 50 million additional people work in its trade and processing. The major cotton producing regions in the country include Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and parts of Andhra Pradesh & Karnataka. Cotton is often sown early (April to May) in northern India and later as it moves south (monsoon based in southern zone). The sowing season varies greatly across regions. The rain-fed crop is planted in June to July when the monsoon season begins, while the irrigated crop is planted from March to May.

Effects of climate change on cotton production

Climate variables, including temperature, rainfall, and humidity, have a big impact on cotton production. Warm-season crops like cotton need warm weather for optimum growth and development. However, cotton crops may suffer from excessive heat. Also, high temperatures can increase the pressure from pests and diseases while also lowering cotton output and quality. A cotton plant requires a lot of water to grow. A lack of rain or a protracted drought may lower cotton yields. On the other hand, excessive rain or flooding can ruin the crop and prevent planting or harvesting. High amounts of humidity can foster the growth of fungi that cause wilt and boll rot, which lower cotton’s production and quality.

All six of the top cotton-producing nations—India, the United States, China, Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey—are vulnerable to climate risk, especially from wildfires, droughts, and extremely heavy rainfall. Water is essential at higher temperatures, especially while flower and boll development are taking place. An example of the damaging outcome of water insufficiency in cotton production is the 2011 drought in Texas, which caused the abandonment of 55% of the cotton fields, resulting in a loss of about $2.2 billion. Conversely, cotton’s vertical tap root makes it vulnerable to harm from sudden heavy rain and floods because saturated roots can’t absorb enough nutrients and oxygen from the soil. This retards the growth and development of cotton plants.

Regenerative cotton farming

Cotton crops can be particularly demanding on the land, causing nutrient depletion and soil erosion. However, regenerative techniques, such as using cover crops or planting nitrogen-fixing trees, can help improve the health and fertility of the soil. This will also lessen the need for synthetic fertilizers. Cotton growers can benefit from regenerative agriculture techniques to increase the resilience of their farming systems and help them adjust to changing weather patterns. Regenerative cotton farming can also benefit the environment and society by helping to sequester carbon and improving the lives of smallholder farmers. Trees can also be intercropped with cotton, such as moringa or neem trees, which have insecticidal properties that can help control pests. Also, Many herbs, including basil, cilantro, mint, dill, and sage, get along well with cotton. Cotton also goes well with onions and garlic, which may aid in repelling the boll weevil, which is a major pest of cotton. Renature has designed a regenerative farm model for cotton in partnership with Labl. This model farm is aimed at training 5000 farmers on regenerative farming techniques in Kenya.

A study was carried out in Xinjiang, China, to determine the impact of intercropping systems on microclimate, yield, and farmers’ income compared with monocropping system. Jujube was intercropped with cotton in an agroforestry system, and the relationship between intercropping microclimate and intercropping yield was revealed. The results showed that the development of jujube-cotton intercropping could protect the growing environment of cotton and increase farmers’ economic income by improving the field microclimate. Also, peanut and cotton intercropping has been proven to boost productivity and economic gains by regulating the buildup of plant nutrients and soil microbial communities.

In Brazil, reNature is leading two important projects focused on regenerative cotton:

  • Fazenda Costaquino: the project’s goal is to prove the viability of the regenerative agriculture model for large-scale cotton, soybean, corn, and intensive livestock farming in the Mato Grosso Cerrado region (area of 4,500 hectares). The crops are rotated in a 3-year cycle in order to improve the soil.
  • AMAGGI: reNature is supporting development of AMAGGI REGENERA, the regenerative agriculture program for AMAGGI, the largest Brazilian grain and fiber company. The project’s goal is to align and scale priorities for a low-carbon agricultural system that restores soil health and biodiversity, while encouraging an entire generation of producers to adopt a new way of producing.

Projects in commodity