An Introduction to Cotton

Alex Tiller - Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Cotton is a white fibrous agricultural product that has a wide variety of uses, from textile production, to creating paper, to producing oil and food products. Cotton is grown all around the globe, and is traded internationally as well – the international trade in cotton is led by the United States and the African nations, and totals more than $12 billion annually. This article will discuss the basics of cotton’s development through history, its cultivation today, and the large array of applications for this amazing plant.


Taxonomy and Natural History


Cotton (from the Arabic word ‘al-qutn) is a member of the malvaceae family of flowering plants that includes hibiscus, pavonia and mallow plants. More specifically, cotton is classified with a genus of tropical and subtropical shrubs known as gossypium. There four commercial species of cotton, the most common of which is gossypium hirsutum, a variety native to Mesoamerica, Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean. The other three are g. arboreum, or “tree cotton,” which is grown primarily in India and Pakistan; g. barbadebse, also called “Creole,” or “Egyptian” cotton, a South American variety; and g. herbaceum, the “Levantine” cotton native to southern Africa and the Middle East. Cotton was first cultivated more than 6000 years ago, in the Harappan cultural region of southeast Asia. Its use spread from there and farmers around the world adopted the plant for their own specific climate needs.


There are also several wild species; experiments in cross-breeding these with domesticated varieties have been ongoing in attempts to produce cotton plants with greater drought tolerance and disease resistance.


The domestication of cotton appears to have begun in present-day Pakistan approximately 6,000 years ago. The Harrappan civilization of the Indus River Valley exported cotton fabrics to the early Semitic peoples of the Middle East as well as the Egyptians starting around 3000 B.C.E.; from there, cotton made its way into Nubia, Meroë and the interior of Africa. Similar domestication of cotton apparently took place in the Americas independently, albeit later: the ancient Peruvian Moche and Nazca civilizations, which flourished as Rome was declining in Europe, made extensive use of cotton fabric.


Eventually, cotton fabric was introduced to Europe by way of the Greeks, who described cotton as “tree wool.” Until the Renaissance, Europeans folklore held that cotton trees bore “vegetable lambs,” whose wool was used to create cotton fabric (cotton is still called Baumwolle, or “tree wool” in Germany).


Cotton in the Textile and Fabric Industries


In addition to the creation of several different fabrics, including terrycloth, denim, corduroy, twill and flannel, cotton is used to make fishnets and reusable coffee filters. Cotton’s versatility, durability and utility have led to entire sectors of the fabric industry being entirely dependent on it, although this dominance has diminished in the age of synthetic fabrics.

 Cotton as Food, Medicine, and Paper 

Cottonseed oil and cottonseed meal are by-products of the ginning process; the invention of the cotton gin, which permitted mechanical separation of the cotton boll, opened the door to economically practical use of cotton byproducts. The oil and meal are edible; the former can be used in cooking, while the latter is generally fed to livestock. In addition, cotton root bark has a place in folk medicine; it was used by female slaves in the early U.S. to induce abortion.


Before the age of inkjet and laser printing, the best typing paper was made from cotton fabric. As with fabrics, this pride of place is somewhat less than in previous decades, but cotton still is used in many paper product applications.

 Raising Cotton 

Traditionally, cotton cultivation has been extremely labor-intensive. The introduction of mechanical cotton-pickers has changed this over the past 50 years or so, and it is still picked by hand in many places in the world. Cotton requires great amounts of water and pesticides as well as fertilizers. Some varieties of cotton have been genetically modified in order to make them more pest and disease resistant; these varieties are grown primarily in India. In the U.S., a variety of GM cotton has been developed which contains genetic material from a bacterium that is toxic to the boll weevil and other insects that feed on cotton.


Cotton requires a fairly long growing season, heavy soil, plenty of light and at least two feet of rain in order to thrive. Because it is so water-dependent, cotton cultivation has led to major problems such as desertification and increased salinity in parts of the former Soviet Union. Currently, the U.S. and several African countries are the largest exporters of cotton, although the textile industry of the U.S. has largely moved to China and India.


The United States is still the world’s third-largest producer of cotton. The United States is at the leading edge of the technological and research aspect of cotton production. Three quarters of the US cotton crop is genetically modified, and at the same time the US leads the world in experiments in organic cotton – non-genetically modified cotton that is raised without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic cotton is beginning to appear in small quantities at a number of retailers in the U.S.


Cotton production in the United States has also led the world, historically and in the modern era, in the use of mechanical cultivation, harvesting, and processing tools. Cotton’s utility in the world made a huge leap forward with the invention of cotton gin technology in the 1800s, and with cotton picking and stripping machinery in the 20th century. While cotton may never again be king, the increasing scarcity of petroleum as a base for synthetic fibers and the amazing utility of this versatile crop ensure that it will always be agricultural royalty.