Overview: Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum)

The use of cotton has been dated to 3000 B.C. The word cotton is derived from the Arabic qutton or kutn, meaning the plant found in conquered lands, which refers to Alexander the Great's conquest of India. Cotton requires 180 frost-free days per crop. As a result, it is produced between 36 degrees south latitude and 46 degrees north latitude in tropical in tropical and subtropical climates.

1753 - Listed on the London exchange

Cotton achieved true "commodity" status in 1753 when Carolina cotton was listed on the London exchange. By 1861 cotton had become the single most important crop traded in the world, and more than 80% of it was grown in the southern United States.

Huge demand with the industrial revolution
The surge in demand for cotton came from the industrial revolution, in particular from the expansion of the textile industry and the change from wool to cotton.

Longer fibre cotton preferred
In the past several annual and perennial cultivars of cotton were grown. Each was adapted to different growing conditions and produced cotton of different-length fibres and natural colours. Over time the trend has been to breed whiter cotton with more and longer fibre.

Most perennial, or tree, species of cotton have been abandoned because they cannot be produced or picked by machine, even though their long fibre is highly sought after.

Recent trends in cotton production
More recently some producers have begun to revive cotton varieties that have natural colours other than white to eliminate the dying process. Others have begun to produce organic cotton. Neither of these trends represents a significant share of either local or global markets.

Largest money-making non-food crop
Cotton is the largest money-making non-food crop produced in the world. Its production and processing provide some or all of the cash income of over 250 million people worldwide, and employ almost 7% of all labour in developing countries.

Nearly all activities associated with cotton production, processing, and manufacturing are becoming more concentrated in the hands of fewer companies and fewer countries. Cotton textiles constitute approximately half of all textiles (Banuri 1999).


Extracts from "World Agriculture & Environment" by Jason Clay - buy the book online from Island Press
Harvested cotton from the irrigated lands of the Chihuahua Desert near Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, ... / ©: WWF-Canon / Edward PARKER
Harvested cotton from the irrigated lands of the Chihuahua Desert near Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, Mexico.
© WWF-Canon / Edward PARKER

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