IT Conversations – Big Cotton

CottonListen here.  I am trying to broaden the subjects I listen to on IT conversations, so “big Cotton” seemed to fit the bill.  In this interview Dr. Moira Gunn speaks with journalist Stephen Yafa about a crop that has been with us for over 5,000 years: cotton. It’s also a crop which continues to significantly impact the environment. Moira also speaks with Stephen about his new book “Big Cotton — How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map”.

As always the interview was excellent and Stephen Yafa was a great speaker.  I was fascinated to hear about how the expansion of cotton growing in the South of the US was the tripping point for the Civil War and horrified by the level of environmental pollution and soil erosion caused by Cotton growing.  Even worse was the way that America provides massive subsidies to the cotton growers, effectively allowing them to dump cotton on the global market, crippling the cotton growers on the developing world.  If you want to know more you can check out Stephens Book – Big Cotton and also these web sites:

Sustainable Cotton, which is about The Sustainable Cotton Project, which was founded to search for, develop and promote ways to grow clean, chemical and pesticide free cotton

The National Cotton Council of America The National Cotton Council of America’s mission is to ensure the ability of all U.S. cotton industry segments to compete effectively and profitably in the raw cotton, oilseed and U.S.-manufactured product markets at home and abroad.


Want more – read on :

The humble fiber here has a grand history, from its first domestication over five thousand years ago to its current genetic modifications. Cotton may not actually be historically as all-powerful as Yafa makes it seem; like any book that casts an intense regard on a limited subject, _Big Cotton_ can make it seem as if cotton is really more important than, say, coal or sugar, which have in their turn inspired innovation and greed. Nonetheless, this is an excellent world-wide history, and by the end, Yafa has fully justified his subtitle. First domesticated independently on different continents around 5,500 years ago, the family _Gossypium malavaceae_ bears protective lint around its seeds, fibers that can be spun into fabrics. The original cotton introduced to Europe came from India in the seventeenth century. What made chintz an irresistible fad was that the Indians had found ways to die the cotton with brilliant colors that were slow to fade as the cloth was used or washed. Consumers so prized chintz that they ignored import bans, and eventually English inventors built factories to take production to an industrial scale. The resulting mill system was enormously lucrative, and also famously cruel, employing children as young as eight for thirteen hour days in hot, dangerous factories in which they constantly inhaled cotton fibers, producing what was eventually known as byssinosis, or brown lung disease. The American version, begun by Francis Cabot Lowell, who used his photographic memory to steal details of the British machines, was more paternalistic, but economics ensured that American mills, too, became hellish sweatshops. The aftereffects of the Civil War caused the large plantations to be divided into smaller units that were toiled upon by sharecroppers. It was a shameful system that impoverished white farmers and black; cotton production, however, did not flag until the boll weevil crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico in 1892 and proceeded inexorably to all the acreage that cotton had claimed. The weevil’s entrance enables Yafa to embark on numerous branches of this story, from the use of pesticides to the influence of the weevil, and cotton farming in general, on the music of the blues. Cotton is a huge topic, and Yafa’s often discursive style suits it well, as he discusses entertainingly the rise of denim and of blue jeans (blue because cotton has a particular molecular affinity for dye from the indigo plant); the rise of the current biggest cotton producer, China; Gandhi’s use of cotton spinning as a tool against oppression; the modern use of pesticides on the crop (second in tonnage only to those used on corn), which is now forty billion pounds a year worldwide; and the subsidies for American cotton farmers which are disastrous for millions of poor farmers around the world (and may increase their poverty and acceptance of terrorism, Yafa argues). Yafa explains how a world that is sometimes resistant to genetic modification has embraced GM cotton mostly because you wear cotton and don’t eat it. Such logic is false; you do eat cotton, in cottonseed oil, and in the short fibers go in cheap ice cream to thicken it. In fact, as Yafa shows, you and almost everyone else in the planet will be using cotton somehow today. It’s a good reason to learn about the plant, and this brightly-written and detailed history does the job nicely.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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