White Gold

A look into the social and environmental effects of global cotton production reveals the real price of cheap clothes, a distorted market and an increasing industrialization of agriculture that changes the social role of the farmer.

Cotton is the fabric of our life. We wear its fibers on our skin. We pay for our cotton-filtered coffee with cotton-based paper money, ingest pressed cotton seeds in potato chips and enjoy ice cream thickened with cotton additives. Cotton linters spread polish on our nails. Recent history is on cotton-based photographic film. Its oil is used for cooking, feeding livestock and producing biofuel.

The darker side of this fabric of our life spins another tale. A distorted and highly subsidized market has ruined millions of peasants around the world. 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995, after being forced to depend on corporate seed supply. Chemical use and excessive irrigation in Central Asia turned a fertile paradise into a polluted desert. More chemicals are sprayed on cotton than on any other single crop worldwide, leading to high rates of cancer and birth defects in the cotton-growing areas.

Since September 2007 I have photographed and filmed five aspects of the social and environmental effects of global cotton production in Texas, Burkina Faso, Brazil and Central Asia:

USA – Texas

Cotton is the catalyst for changes that will redefine agriculture in the coming decades. Designed to reduce labor costs in high paying western countries genetically modified cottonseeds are increasingly planted all over the world. With this patented seeds, which have to be bought every year the farmer is loosing his social, cultural and economic identity as a producer and becomes a consumer of expensive seeds and chemicals. To stay profitable the farmer has to industrialize his operation and increase his acreage, pushing other farmers out of business.

In 1946 the average size of the US cotton farm was 17 acres and there were more than a million cotton farmers. Today 25.000 are left and cotton farms average over 1,000 acres. But because of the ever-smaller profit margin even the biggest farmers are only one bad year away from bankruptcy. More than 25 percent of the U.S.’s cotton is produced within 80 miles of Lubbock in Western Texas.

Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso cotton is the main export-commodity in terms of value, and generates income for approximately 2 million people in the country. After years of suffering from US subsidies and intense lobbying by seed companies Burkina Faso is the first western African country to authorize genetically modified cotton, hoping the promised increase in yield will create a small profit for its farmers. This new strategy threatens Burkina Faso’s organic cotton, which dispenses with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, preserves the soil, reduces irrigation by forty percent and increases the income of farmers.

Brazil – Mato Grosso

Although grown on only 2.4% of the world’s arable land cotton uses more than 24% of all the insecticides and 11% of pesticides – far more than is applied to any other single crop worldwide.

In Mato Grosso, Brazils largest cotton producing state, an average of 50 liters pesticides is used per capita every year. At the same time, the region witnessed an unparalleled agricultural boom, which flushes money into peoples hands and renders the land from forest to industrial.

Central Asia

According to the WWF the production of 1 kg of cotton uses 7,000 to 29,000 liters of water because three-quarters of cotton grows under irrigation in dry, warm countries. Cotton growing is directly implicated in the degradation of large-scale ecosystems including the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

Where only 50 years ago the worlds 4th largest lake guaranteed a mild climate, a chemical polluted salt dessert remains. Sandstorms raise the poisonous dust of the plain into the air and contribute about 5% to worldwide air pollution. The salt blown to the Pamir Knot melts the mountains’ glaciers, putting Central Asia’s water supply at peril.

gefördert vom Kulturwerk der VG BILD-KUNST GmbH



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