Cotton: Here We Go Again

Today’s The New York Times contains a story by Celia Dugger, “Oxfam Suggests Benefit in Africa if U.S. Cuts Cotton Subsidies.” Yet nowhere in the article is there suggestion of the costs that result from increased cotton cultivation. There are short-term benefits to cotton, certainly. But do they outweigh the long-term damage? The answer isn’t quite so clear.

In the late 1980s, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Northern Togo (close to the Ghana border and not far from Burkina Faso) teaching farmers how to care for the oxen and plows they had bought through a government loan program meant to stimulate cotton cultivation. As time passed, I began to shift my efforts into a secondary project, working with people in a village near mine to develop a tree nursery and then to plant hedgerows. Why? The cotton program had begun to sour for me.

Here’s what happens (or did—I don’t know if the program still exists): a farmer borrows something in the area of a thousand dollars through the government program, getting in return a pair of somewhat-trained oxen and the plow, yoke, and other equipment necessary. The farmer has to provide a stable and feed.

Because the soil in the region is meager at best, the farmer will also have to buy fertilizer—not to mention pesticide.

For the first time, probably, the farmer is starting the planting season in debt, so has to allocate an even greater percentage of land to cash crops than normal—cotton being the primary one. He (or she, but most in the program were men) will also have to plant enough more to replace the subsistence crops (millet, sorghum, etc.) that his family normally grows for its own table.

The farmer has no insurance against calamity—drought, or anything else that might destroy the crop. The debt will remain, no matter what happens. So, the farmer is taking a risk, even putting his family in danger of famine through the reduction of food crops. This program, in other words, provides a genuine avenue for making participants poorer, not richer, and financially in thrall to the government.

But that’s only one of the peripheral problems cotton presents—and one of the least serious.

Cotton may have destroyed the fertility of North Africa. Certainly, it came close to rendering the soil of the American south useless in the 19th century. It can easily do the same in West Africa.

And that’s serious.

Cotton is an extremely greedy plant. It sucks nutrients from the soil, giving little back. For this reason, it should be planted (ideally) only one year in three in any one field, with the farmer (after two cycles that include cotton) allowing the field to lie fallow the seventh year. For one of the other two years, the crop should be nitrogen-fixing (like groundnuts). Soil needs to be tended with forethought and care, if it is going to survive cotton and not decline.

Yes, fertilizers can replace some of the loss, but they are expensive and have side-effects of their own. And fertilizers can tempt a farmer to stress a field through the short-term gain it can help provide—but it is a gain built on desperation (or debt), sacrificing productivity down the road or, at best, increasing expense for fertilizer as more and more is needed.

When a farmer is desperate to survive, the fallow year disappears—and only the most cash-rich crops are planted. What good will it do to have fine soil in the future if the family has starved to death—or lost the farm—in the meantime?

West Africa’s huge savannah is depleted a little more each year, the Sahara looming a little closer. If care is not taken to protect and enhance the land, and not simply to wrest a little more from it right now, the sands will engulf those very farms that too many now see as the salvation of West African economies.

The salvation of West Africa lies not in higher cotton prices but in finding a way for the land to both support the people and be replenished. Anything less is no more than trying to close a belly wound with a Band-Aid.