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Cotton refers to a plant and also to the fibers from the plant. Cotton plants are shrubs in the genus Gossypium, characterized by seed capsules (“bolls”); in some species the seeds are attached to cellulose fibers. The fibers, which may have evolved to help disperse the seeds by attracting nest-building birds, attracted early human interest because they are flat, convoluted and so spinnable into thread. This property led to a remarkable history which included pivotal roles in ancient trade, the Industrial Revolution, New World slavery, the pesticide revolution, the spread of genetically-modified crops into developing countries, and world trade disputes. Cotton is the world’s most widely used natural fiber, with a popularity that cuts across class, culture, and geography. However, its history has a dark side, and the political economy and ecology of cotton today are problematic.
Four Gossypium species were domesticated in prehistory. The diploid New World species G. barbadense and G. hirsutum were being used for textiles by 3600 B.C. (Barbadense in Chile, Hirsutum in Mexico). Sea Island cotton is a famous variety of G. barbedense, noted for a long staple (fiber length) that binds into thread especially well. Cultivation of G. barbadense is mostly restricted to lowland areas. G. hirsutum is more amenable to widespread production; hirsutum fibers are somewhat shorter (although still longer than Old World cottons). The Old World gave us the tetraploid species G. herbaceum and G. arboreum (tree cotton), both of which may have originated in Africa. Both were in use in the Indus Valley by around 2000 B.C. New World hirsutum varieties have mostly replaced local arboreum and herbaceum in cotton production in the Old World, largely due to colonial agricultural programs.
India dominated the global market for cotton products for over one thousand years; Greek and Roman ships sailed under sails of Indian cotton. Early writers, including Herodotus, described the wondrous wool-bearing tree of India, leading Europeans to depict the plant as a chimera with actual sheep growing on it. Once oceanic trade routes connected Europe to the East Indies in early 1500s, commerce in cotton textiles greatly increased. India continued to dominate this trade, providing highquality calicoes and muslins were that highly desired in Europe.
Cotton was instrumental in the Industrial Revolution. By the end of the 18th century, England which previously had engaged only in small-scale, cottage-based textile production had assumed dominance of cotton weaving. This was the combined result of key inventions, the emergence of capitalists, and state policy. Key inventions from the 1770s-1870s included the spinning jenny (which boosted thread weaving), the water frame (which wound the thread onto rollers), the “mule” (which allowed these functions to be powered by steam engine), and the power loom. These inventions facilitated the development of textile factories, organized by early capitalist entrepeneurs. The state provided protection by banning the East India Company from importing calicoes. England’s demand for cotton to feed its textile industry stimulated production of hirsutum cotton in the U.S. south, especially after the 1793 appearance of Whitney’s gin, which allowed rapid separation of fiber from seed. Cotton became a key driver of U.S. economic expansion, accounting for half of exports by the mid-1800s. These events also led to a sharp rise in demand for slave labor in the southern states, raising the cost of slaves and stimulating slave trading after the 1807 ban on this activity.
The ecological problem in cotton cultivation is predation by a wide range of insect pests, including weevils and bollworms that devour bolls, and “sucking insects” that feed on sap. Cotton absorbs more insecticide than any other single crop, and in some areas it uses as much as all other crops combined. Cotton is the ultimate “pesticide treadmill” crop; its pests often develop resistance to insecticides and force development and use of new pesticides. In India, with the largest area in cotton cultivation, this crop accounts for five percent of farmland but absorbs over 40 percent of pesticide. Pesticide resistance is a severe problem that continues to play a role in suicides by bankrupt Indian cotton cultivators.
These problems of the cotton pesticide treadmill have created a niche for crop genetic modification, a major early accomplishment of which was the insertion of an insecticide-producing gene into cotton (and several other crops). “Bt cotton” (named for the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis in which the gene originated) was widely adopted in the United States in the late 1990s, and by the early 2000s it was leading the march of genetically modified crops into developing countries, especially China and India.
Cotton has also been at the center of global trade disputes. During an era of trade liberalization and reduction of agricultural subsidies in some countries, the United States has continued lavish cotton subsidies, leading U.S. farmers to expand production despite low global prices. It has been pointed out that U.S. cotton subsidies were literally (if indirectly) killing farmers in Africa and elsewhere, and this situation has galvanized opposition among developing countries. In 2004 the World Trade Organization ruled the U.S. subsidy illegal (in a challenge filed by Brazil), but by two years after the ruling, little had changed.
In a major public relations campaign, advertisements sang that cotton was “the fabric of our lives.” This is perhaps truer than most people realize, as this plant and fiber has been interwoven with more diverse, important, and troubling threads of our history than perhaps any other plant.
- P.A. Fryxell, The Natural History of the Cotton Tribe (Texas A&M University Press, 1979);
- Beverly Lemire, Fashion’s Favourite: Cotton and the Consumer in Britain, 1660-1800 (Oxford University Press, 1991);
- Tirthankar Roy (ed.), Cloth and Commerce: Textiles in Colonial India (Sage, 1996);
- Glenn Davis Stone, “Biotechnology and Suicide in India,” Anthropology News (v.43, 2002);
- Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf, Domestication of Plants in the Old World (Oxford University Press, 2000).