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What in the World?

Two-thirds of cotton may be disappearing this decade

Sep 27, 2022


After sugar and tobacco, cotton was one of the world’s first luxury goods. It also has a complex history in trade and politics, with production dating back to 4000 B.C. in India and Mexico. While cotton grows in nearly all tropical and subtropical regions around the world, environmental disasters, sunlight, water requirements and climate change are putting pressure on this widely used textile. Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan fears the cotton crop will see a decline over the next decade:

Excerpted from Peter’s Sept. 27 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Every agricultural, industrial and energy commodity has its own story as regards its geography of production, supply chains and use. I try to get to as many of them as possible in the new book, The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization. Change one thing about the global system and the way we source and use each product evolves. Rice is ridiculously vulnerable to changes in rainfall patterns. Work from home (or stop working from home) and oil markets lose their minds. 

But the commodity I’ve always personally found the most fascinating is the saga of cotton. There is far more to cotton than “merely” being the “fabric of our lives”.

Cotton was the original industrial commodity, putting it at the heart of everything from urbanization to mercantilism to the women’s rights movement. Everything about cotton sits at the intersection of human rights, trade wars, climate change, technology and economic development patterns. Cotton’s story is nowhere near over. In fact, its near-term future will be among the most storied…stories of the deglobalization era.

NB: The following video is one I recorded while on my annual backpacking trip in August; please excuse any potential anachronisms. I did not mention India as a cotton producer because they’re bit of a separate case from the rest of the world’s main producers, despite their size. Monsoon rather than river or aquifer irrigation is the norm, and they have a host of production challenges (and low production yields) and processing limitations that set them apart not just from China, but smaller countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and Turkey as well.

Hi, everyone, Peter Zion here coming to you from above Fernandez lake in the Sierra National Forest. Today is day three of the will Peter return a live tour. Obviously, we’ve had a significant improvement of the weather is barely a cloud in the sky, nice sunny light breeze. This is why a backpack. Anyway, since I dressed like a Bandito. Today, I thought today would be a good time to talk about cotton. Now cotton is odd. And that requires just a massive amount of water and a just relentless level of sunlight. And there just aren’t that many places on the planet that habit really there’s only about five Shang in China, Central Asia, specifically Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, the American South pacifically the Carolinas and Mississippi, Brazil and the Nile Valley. Now, it’s not that cotton is necessarily difficult to grow if you’ve got those right inputs. However, having it scattered to just five places, in many ways makes the cotton market actually more vulnerable to disruption than, say, the oil market. I mean, sure, you’re not going to see those wild price swings that we can see with oil because of inelastic demand. But it’s definitely a problem. And in the world that we are degrading into a lot of this stuff is simply going to fall off the market. So even assuming no one in the West develops a moral backbone on things like genocide, and Jiang, China is going to fall off a market over the course of the next decade, Brazil is probably going to be mostly stable, there’ll be an issue of trade links and government coherence, they’ll probably be able to hold it on the American South, obviously, we’ll be fine. Egypt, anything happens to global agriculture. And Egypt, cotton goes away completely. What the Egyptians had been doing for the last century, is selling cotton on international markets and using the income from that to buy wheat that then they subsidize in terms of selling it to their population. While the population under this policy has now expanded beyond the ability of Egypt to feed its own population have they switched everything to wheat. So if there’s a disruption to wheat supplies, not only do we get famine in Egypt, in order to prevent just mass carnage, the Egyptian Government will have no choice but to stop all cotton production and go back to wheat full time. That just leaves Central Asia. Now even before talk about climate change was in vogue around the world. We had an in progress, environmental disaster in Central Asia. There are two rivers this year in the dirt, the AMO and the seer, which the Soviets diverted to massive cotton plantations in the middle of the Central Asian deserts. That grew a lot of cotton, they were doing this so they wouldn’t have to tap in international markets to get say, Egyptian or southern cotton. But it meant that it took two rivers that drew water from a very limited glacial impact, and put it all in the desert. Well, 50 years later, 60 years later, the glaciers that provide that water are almost gone, they will disappear this decade, and then both of those rivers will disappear, and they will take the cotton with them. So we’re looking at roughly half maybe closer to two thirds of global cotton just going away this decade. It’s not all bad news. If you are in the American South, we now have technology that allows us to take cotton, clean it, color it, turn it into a thread, weave it into yarn, weave it into cloth and punch it into whatever shape we want, say T shirts, without a person touching it. You can now have a facility that’s about two acres with a staff of two software engineers that can produce more at a lower price point than 250 Bangladeshi Weaver’s. So the technology really has evolved quite a bit over the course of the last 15 years, and it’s going to lead to a very different market, one in which the American South will rise again. Okay, that’s it from me. Until next time, take care

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