Cotton industry unprepared for climate change threat to crop and farmers

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Climate change impacts, from hotter temperatures to more droughts and floods, threaten much of the world’s cotton production, risking worsening shortages, higher prices and financial woes for growers, researchers warned on Wednesday.

Protecting the $12-billion market - in countries such as India, the United States, Brazil and China - will require both slashing emissions to limit planetary heating and stepped-up efforts by farmers to adapt to the new risks, they said.

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By 2040, 40 percent of cotton-producing regions are likely to see their growing seasons shortened by rising heat, while drought could hit half of the global crop, according to a report produced by Cotton 2040, an initiative working for a more sustainable and climate-resilient cotton industry.

Eventually, if efforts to cut emissions fail and warming ramps up in line with the harshest scientific projections, cotton could be dramatically reduced as a crop, leaving the industry “a shadow of what it is today,” said Sally Uren, chief executive of Forum for the Future, an international nonprofit that backs Cotton 2040.

But even with less warming, crop losses are likely to occur even as global cotton demand rises due to population increases and an expanding middle class in some developing nations.

While growers are rapidly becoming aware of rising climate risks, few companies that rely on cotton for their products know much about those threats, and consumers even less, Uren said.

The new analysis should serve as “a wake-up call for the cotton industry,” she added.

Extreme weather has already led to growing volatility in cotton prices. Large-scale floods in Pakistan in 2010, for example, caused global cotton prices to spike to nearly $2.50 from about $0.70 in 2009, the report noted.

Cotton rolls are seen on the production line at the Aube Tricotage factory in Sainte-Savine, France, October 30, 2018. (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)
Cotton rolls are seen on the production line at the Aube Tricotage factory in Sainte-Savine, France, October 30, 2018. (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)

Crop losses are proving particularly tough for millions of developing-world cotton farmers who make up about 90 percent of the world’s growers, the report said.

Crop failures could slash incomes among poorer growers who cannot afford to adapt to changing conditions or switch to climate-smarter crops, Uren told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In India, where farmers are already struggling with severe droughts and water shortages, some cotton growers left with no money to restart production after their crops fail are committing suicide, she said.

Cotton-growing areas facing some of the biggest extreme weather risks include northern Sudan, Senegal and southern Mali in Africa, as well as parts of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the report noted.

Efforts to adapt to changing conditions by shifting planting times, boosting irrigation and providing farmers with climate forecasts could help some cope better, the report noted.

But unless emissions are slashed, some cotton-growing areas will become unsuitable for the crop in the future, Uren predicted.

In those areas, governments should ensure a “just transition” for farmers, such as by helping them adopt new crops or providing social safety nets, she said.

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