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Food Crops vs. Cotton: How Cheap Fashion is Threatening Food Supply

| Monday March 5th, 2012 | 2 Comments

There this no doubt that the advent of fast fashion and the rise of cheap, throw-away clothes have put increasing pressure on natural resources. But when fashion starts threatening the global food supply, it takes on great importance.

The Guardian recently reported that the high demand for cotton might actually be a contributing factor to food shortages and might be a threat to future food security.

Although more land was converted to crop land since the 1950s, and agricultural land now covers one quarter of the planet’s surface, not all of it is used for growing food.

According to The Guardian: “Of a world crop production of 2748.2 million tonnes (2011), only 4% was cotton, the most popular of fibre crops. However the picture manifests itself very differently if land usage is the measure to go by: the plantations of the three largest cotton growers – the US, China and India – alone account for 50 million acres, 42% of all agricultural land. In contrast, food crops amount to some 40 million acres and fuel crops to 32 million acres.”

In 2011, the high prices of cotton prompted farmers to abandon growing food in exchange for cotton cultivation. This increase in cotton cultivation will predictably see a drop in market prices this year, which might carry over to next year as well. This however, is a temporary trend. World over, both cotton and food crops are being swapped for biofuel crops which are comparatively easier to grow and are lower in maintenance, making them more attractive for farmers.

However, increasing acreage of cotton and fuel crops is dangerous because this could result in food shortage and food cost inflation which is already high. This trend is likely to affect Asia, Africa and the Middle East more than the rest of the world.

The inability to keep growing cotton cheaply might mean the end of cheap fashion because in comparison to food and fuel crops, it is a non-essential commodity. So, in the long run the amount of acreage used for cotton cultivation will decrease, proportionately boosting up prices.

Pamela Ravasio, author of the Guardian article and consultant for the Ethical Fashion Consultancy states that: “Fashion retailers will be confronted with three options: First, squeeze their suppliers’ margins. In other words, manufacturers rather than retailers will be required to absorb raw material price increases. In turn, suppliers may compensate by reducing salaries paid to workers (or reduce staff and increase hours). Given that numerous NGOs are sensitised to this danger, it will not take long to raise the alarm in the global media, and brands’ reputations and ultimately sales could suffer. Alternatively, retailers could absorb the raw material price hike themselves in return for lower margins or finally, raw material price hikes are ultimately passed on to consumers.”

Any or all of the three scenarios will result in the eventual death of cheap fashion and perhaps this is a good thing.

Image Credit: H2O-C, Wikimedia Commons


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  • Haroldbrewer

    A poor workman always blames his tools

  • http://twitter.com/grapedoc Steve Savage

    I don’t know where the author got acreages, but they are way off.  There are over 300 million acres of cropland in the US alone, so those percentages are completely wrong