Biofuels may be getting the finger right now, but
Scientist’s Fred Pearce argues
that we should be sticking it to other non-food crops, too, for gobbling up
valuable farmland and scarce natural resources.
Pearce goes after King Cotton, whose cultivation entails
all manner of environmental ills. Apparently, the cultivation of cotton soaks up
vast amounts of water, long before it gets processed into a fluffy bath towel.
It takes 25 bathtubs of water to produce one cotton T-shirt, according to Pearce; the global
production of the crop has already drained major bodies of water and taken a
heavy toll on the Indus and Nile Rivers.
Cotton cultivation also uses about 10 percent of the world’s
pesticides and 22.5 percent of all insecticides, and traces of the poisons have
in major American bodies of water. Organic cotton may be less toxic, but it
doesn’t seem to make a dent in terms of the crop’s land and water usage.
But any pushback against King Cotton will be a Goliath
endeavor. There are--surprise!--enormous subsidies supporting the industry in
the U.S., totaling about $3 billion per year. The developing
world’s cotton farmers may have scored a major victory last month, when the WTO
down America’s final appeal to protect
the pay-outs. But flattening the global cotton trade won’t do a thing to remedy
cotton’s huge ecological footprint. In fact, it
could make it worse, as the sun-reliant crop has also encouraged deforestation in
developing countries, where pesticide use tends to be even less regulated.
(Reports of child labor and other human impacts aren’t promising
So what’s to be done? The trouble with cotton is that
there isn’t an immediate substitute for the crop as a textile. No synthetic can
match it, and I, for one, wouldn't leap to trade in my cotton shirts for hemp. On
the demand side, I think there are viable ways to cut back on the usage of
cottonseed oil and cotton by-products. But since it isn’t realistic to expect
cotton farming to be scaled back in any significant manner, we need to assess
how we’re going to deal with the damage. Given escalating water
scarcity and the looming water
wars, I expect that the industry is already bracing itself for the backlash.
Suzy Khimm is a senior editor at The New Republic.