HomeOpinion & AnalysisHow climate change impacts cotton growing

How climate change impacts cotton growing


IN these fast changing times where climate change is the main driver of global changes, the world has never been the same again.

Peter Makwanya

Climate change is here to stay and communities need to strategically position themselves to adapt and survive in the context of the changing climate. Quite a number of sectors have been overtaken by events and one such sector which has been outpaced by climatic events and lags behind is the cotton production sector.

Cotton is a crop that is grown widely in many regions around the world which are semi-arid and have cool to hot temperatures. Cotton growing in least-developed countries has been one of the best earning cash crops for many years and its placement at the centre of livelihoods cannot be doubted. Cotton, affectionately referred to as “white gold” is still relevant to the lives of people who grow it, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa but the sad reality is that, due to the negative impacts of climate change, cotton is no longer a cash crop of choice.

Climate change has since impacted cotton production heavily and the low-income countries have been hit hard due to a few options for coping mechanisms.

The low-income countries grow cotton as a pathway to poverty alleviation. Climate change has altered the environmental landscape and brought with it rising temperatures, extreme weather events flooding, water scarcity, moisture stress, droughts, diseases and accompanying natural disasters.

The rainfall seasonal patterns have not been dependable lately.

Highlights of recent research by Cotton 2040 partnered by Climate Risk specialist, Acclimatise, projected a gloomy future for the cotton growing sector.

They highlighted that all global cotton growing regions will be exposed to increased risks of severe climate hazards by 2040. They also outlined that 40% of global cotton growing regions are projected to experience a decrease in their growing seasons as temperatures increase beyond the optimum range for cotton growing while 60% of the cotton crop will be exposed to increased wind speeds and storms.

However, these research institutions’ results spell out what is already in the public domain which nations and communities around the world are witnessing everyday. In this regard, the researchers have just certified what is already on the ground maybe as a way of keeping people informed and reminded.

Why climate change is having a negative footprint in the cotton growing and production sector is that, the whole cotton value-chain is not emission free. In this regard, cotton growing should not be looked at in isolation.

That is why communities in the least-developed countries continue to grow it and still expect the same conditions, results and the same good returns of yesteryear. Cotton growing and production is a process and not an event. There is a high interaction of chemicals and emission of greenhouse gases in the cotton growing and production sector.

The whole cycle and value-chain of cotton growing and production is loaded with emissions that pose negative impacts on the environment.

From growing, use of chemicals and herbicides, to harvesting, transportation to ginnery, ginning, yarn production, textile production to household washing in steam laundries, all are carbon emission loaded.

These emissions have been going on for many years thereby getting the earth and water bodies drunk and intoxicating the atmosphere in the process.

It is true that the agricultural sector is one of the main contributors of greenhouse gases, but the cotton sub-sector is in the driving seat as compared to other agricultural sub-sectors.

For these reasons, what cotton farmers lack, deny and miss are cotton sector-specific knowledge and information like emission literacy, consumer education, climate knowledge awareness and literacy.

These essential forms of life-long learning and empowering pillars, would empower cotton farming communities in order for them to stay informed, live ahead of time and be  able to interpret the climatic change risk phenomena.

Apart from being emission loaded, the agricultural sector is very vulnerable to climate change and is exposed. High and very low temperatures are taking a negative toll on production, while climate change has hardened pests and diseases which are now resistant to some chemicals.

These pests and diseases have outpaced technology and adapted to the impacts of climate change, more than what the cotton sector has done. Precipitation patterns have become unreliable, farmers can hardly invest in the natural cycle of weather patterns.

Prolonged periods of drought, cyclones and flooding have compounded the timing and growing of cotton. In many areas flooding has contributed to water-logging of fields and cotton cannot thrive under such condition.

While high cotton producing countries like China, India, USA, Pakistan, Australia, Turkey and Brazil among others, rely mostly on irrigation, the major undoing in the least-developed countries is that they rely heavily on rain-fed cotton farming.

Even when the water bodies are bursting and overflowing, many least-developed countries lack capacity, expertise and affordable irrigation equipment to harness or harvest water for use in cotton framing and other livelihood options.

Regrettably, the human mind and nature, especially in the developing countries remain stagnant, refusing to change and diversify to other crops like small grain varieties which have a short lifespan. They still hope and strongly believe that one day, cotton will do wonders and they continue to rewind the clock, basking in yesteryear glory while other societies are moving forward and in the right direction.

Sadly, the future of cotton which is the world’s most widely used natural fibre, has been affected by climate change in many ways and the centre can no longer hold.

Climate breakdown is the biggest challenge in human history and is tearing apart the environmental and social fabrics, leaving people licking their wounds and try to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and mend them.

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