Friday, September 7, 2012

Fighting Rising Global Commodity Prices

by Kristoffer James on January 9, 2011

Global commodity prices rise are on the rise, driving up the price of all staples, from food to coffee to cotton. These increases have been severe enough that they even have some G20 leaders worried about food security.
On the cotton front, hemp fibers could help consumers save on their clothing purchases. But if hemp farming was legal in the US, the crop could also preempt further environmental devastation as farmers rush to cash-in on the cotton rush.

Short Supply, Growing Demand

The main causes behind poor cotton yields has been severe weather caused by global warming. Indeed, crops in Pakistan, India, China, and Australia all fell short of expectations in 2010.
As CTV reports, this shortage and increasing demands in India and China may push the price of cotton up as much as 80%. And because of rising price, farmers are rushing to plant more cotton. Both Australia and Brazil have increased their production, and some US states are expected to even double theirs. As Business Week reports:
[...] California farmers are expected to plant 400,000 acres of cotton this year. That’s up from a low of 200,000 acres planted two years ago.
In the short-term, increased cotton production and export will help the US manage its trade deficit. In the medium- to long-term, however, increasing cotton production is bound to only exacerbate one of the causes behind the world’s cotton shortage.

Hemp vs Cotton: Crops & The Climate

The problem with ramping up cotton production, though, is that will only contribute to climate change further. Hemp, on the other hand, represent a much more sustainable, less resource intensive alternative.
First, cotton is thirsty crop, requiring considerable irrigation, which disturbs both marine and terrestrial habitats. Indeed, it can take up to 100 gallons of water to produce one pound of cotton. Hemp can subsist off of rainfall in most climates.
Second, cotton is notorious for depleting soil — leading to soil erosion and desertification. Hemp, by contrast, has a deep root system that helps to prevent soil erosion and aerates the soil — to the benefit of other, future crops.
Third, because cotton depletes soil so extensively, it requires considerable fertilization, leading to eutrophication — poisoning the water table and destroying marine ecosystems. Hemp, however, rarely require fertilization.
Finally, while cotton crops constitute on 3% of cultivated land globally, it account for 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides. Hemp does require the use of such toxic chemicals.

Holding Hemp Back

So while cotton farming not only requires a lot of water, but also uses a lot fertilizer and pesticides (furthering our dependency on petroleum), hemp represents an alternative that is (1) cheaper to produce and (2) much more sustainable as a crop. So what’s holding hemp back as a cash-crop? Well, a number of things.
For starters, there are legal hurdles in many countries. While Canada, Australia, China, and many European countries grow and export industrial hemp, it remains illegal in the US and India because legislation doesn’t distinguish between hemp and its psychoactive counterpart – marijuana. Both the US and India, however, are major cotton producers, so legislative change could bring about considerable agricultural (and ecological) reform.
there is the facts that hemp is not as easily spun into a soft fabric as cotton is. Of course, companies such as Hanes and NAT are working on a solution to this, but the technology to spin hemp into a complete substitute for cotton is still a couple years off.
Finally, there are market issues. Simply put, hemp is still not a mainstream fiber, meaning that farmers just do not have the incentive to grow hemp as they do cotton — i.e. they can’t sell it as easily. This, of course, will change as technology makes hemp fabrics more suitable for consumer needs.
As hemp fiber technology gets better, market demand will go up, farmers will have more of an incentive to cultivate it, and markets forces will apply more pressure on governments to accommodate the crop. Perhaps recent change in commodity prices will lend force to such market forces.
Chances are, though, that cotton lobbyists will work against the crop for at least 5-10 years to come. But let’s hope not.

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