IT IS now generally admitted that the world is confronted with a serious shortage of American cotton. It has taken three successive years of failure to convince the cotton trade that the conditions under which the American crop was produced in the past have changed radically and permanently. It is now quite clear that whereas before the war the American crop used to average about 15 million bales, and had touched 16 million and 17 million bales in two record years, we cannot now look for an average of more than 10 or 11 million bales; and a crop of 12 or 13 millions would literally be a godsend.

On the other hand, it is equally clear that such a reduced crop is entirely inadequate to meet the world's needs. Only once within the last twenty years at least has the world's total consumption of American cotton been as low as 10½ million bales. That was in the great deflation season of 1920-21, under conditions which are not likely to be repeated in any future year. During the past two years the annual consumption has been about 12¾ million bales in spite of the depressed or disturbed conditions which still prevail in many parts of the world. It may therefore be taken as definitely assured that the world wants at least 12 million bales per annum, even for its minimum requirements; and that same figure, on the other hand, represents the probable maximum of the crop. Such a situation can only result in periodic scarcity until the supply is increased. It therefore becomes of the first importance to consider the prospects of such an increase.

In discussing the world's supplies of cotton it is first of all necessary to recall that "cotton" is not a homogeneous unit, but an aggregate of many different varieties of cotton, coming from practically every country in the world from 45° north to 30° south of the Equator, and varying very widely in character and value and in the uses to which they may be put. It is therefore not enough to discuss the world's supply of "cotton." We must particularize, and for this purpose it is most convenient to divide the world's supplies into three main grades, which may be described as fine, medium and short staple cotton respectively. The following table carries out this classification and enables us to place the shortage of the American crop in its proper perspective:


(In thousands of bales of 500 lbs. approx.)
    Length of Average Crops
Variety Where Grown Staple, Inches Pre-war Post-war
GRADE I, FINE        
 SEA ISLAND West Indies 1½-2 7 4
  Charleston, S. C., Florida, Georgia 1½-2 90 2
 EGYPTIAN (SAKEL) Lower Egypt 1¼-1⅝ 1,100 750
 PIMA Arizona 1⅜-1⅝ ..... 70
 SUDAN Tokar, Gezira and Kassala 1¼-1½ 20 25
 EGYPTIAN (UPPERS) Upper Egypt 1⅛-1¼ 400 500
 STAPLE AMERICAN Mississippi, South Carolina, etc 1 3/16-1 15/16 200 200
 PERUVIAN Peru 1⅛-1⅜ 200 200
 BRAZILIAN L'G STP'L Northern Brazil Up to 1½ 100 200
 STAPLE AMERICAN Uganda, Nyasaland, E. and S. Africa 1⅛-1¼ 50 75
  Mesopotamia 1⅛-1¼ ..... 1
  Australia 1⅛-1¼ ...... 3
      ------ ------
      2,167 2,030
 AMERICAN U. S. A. 1 -1⅛ 15,000 11,000
  Mexico 1 -1⅛ 150 200
  Brazil  ¾-1⅛ 300 600
  Russia     1⅛ 250 50
  West Africa     1⅛ 20 25
  Levant  ¾-1⅛ 100 100
  India 1 300 400
  China and Korea 1 100 200
      ------ ------
      16,220 12,575
 INDIAN India   4,000 4,000
 CHINESE China, etc ⅜- ¾ 2,000 1,500
 RUSSIAN Russia   750 100
      ------ ------
      6,750 5,600
GRAND TOTALS   25,137 20,205

In regard to the supply of fine cotton the failure of the American crop has had very little effect. America's contribution in that category was comparatively small. The best of it, the American Egyptian cotton from Arizona, has not been affected at all, because there is no boll weevil there; while of the remainder the Delta cottons from the Mississippi were attacked by boll weevil nearly fifteen years ago, so that it is only the South Carolina staple districts that are newly affected. The downfall of the American crop, therefore, has made very little difference in regard to the fine cotton supply.

Unfortunately, however, the supply of this grade of cotton has suffered in other directions almost as badly as the American crop. The great bulk of it comes from Egypt, and the conditions there have for many years been increasingly unsatisfactory. At one time the Egyptian crop amounted to 1,537,000 bales, but even that showed a marked reduction on the average yield per acre of earlier years; and the fall in the yield has apparently been more or less continuous throughout the war and post-war periods, nor is there any reason to hope that this tendency will be reversed. The causes of this fall are partly agreed--e.g., pink boll worm--and partly very controversial--e.g., the controversy with regard to over-watering and insufficient drainage. But it will take drastic remedies to bring about any material change in the situation, and there is very little prospect of such changes being made under the present régime, or any other that one can envisage as likely for some years to come. For the moment, however, the world's supply of Egyptian cotton (including stocks) is relatively much larger than its supply of American, with the result that the premiums obtainable for staple cotton have dwindled absolutely to vanishing point, in a way which no one would have believed possible. This, again, is already reacting on the supply. In Egypt it has led to a very substantial introduction of the lower grade Upper Egyptian cottons into the Delta, in place of the longer stapled and lower yielding Sakel. Thus, the supply of the finest cottons available (for Sea Island is now practically non-existent) is seriously threatened; and although no one seems to want it at present, the time will certainly come when an increased demand will find the supply short.

Passing to the other extreme--the lowest grades of cotton--we find the supply dominated by the Indian crop, which enjoys the distinction of being almost the only crop in the world that has improved upon its pre-war figures as to yield. Unfortunately, however, the Indian crop is of comparatively little use to the bulk of the world's spinners. Much of it hardly exceeds half an inch in staple; and although there are districts which can and do produce quite satisfactory cotton of American type, its total quantity is comparatively small. Even the most charitable definition of long staple could not possibly raise the figure of India's production of that class to a million bales; and the actual quantity of inch staple is probably not a quarter of that figure.

Of the other crops which fall within this lowest grade the Chinese is by far the largest; but here again the great bulk of the crop is of very inferior quality, being indeed mainly composed of old indigenous types of cotton very closely allied to the Indian types. The same may be said of the bulk of the Russian crop, and indeed of all the Asiatic cottons; for certain peculiar types keep cropping up in practically every country from Bokhara and Persia to China.

Whether much of the world's present consumption of American cotton could be switched over to these lower grades is a moot question. A great deal had been done in this direction, especially by the Germans, even before the war. India and Japan, of course, have always been very large users of Indian cotton; and Japan especially made it her business to use Indian cotton in place of American whenever the latter went to high prices. There is little doubt that under stress of necessity many spinners, even in America and England, might use a great deal more Indian cotton than they do. But making every allowance for this, it is more than doubtful whether the world's spinners of American cotton can as a whole hope for any substantial relief from the use of Indian cotton.

It seems, then, that the shortage of American cotton cannot be got round by transferring the demand to other classes. The only hope lies in the possibility of increasing the supply of cotton from some other part of the world of a quality pretty closely akin to the American crop. At the outset it must be made clear that, given time, there is no fundamental difficulty in the way of doing so. It must be realized that the American cotton belt has not, and never had, any peculiar advantage of soil or climate enabling it permanently to out-distance all competitors. On the contrary, the conditions required for growing cotton can easily be found in almost any area right round the world within the tropical or sub-tropical belt. Why then, it may be asked, should America have developed something so like a monopoly of cotton growing, and why should there be so much difficulty in producing forthwith equally large quantities of cotton from other parts of the world ? The answer to the first question would probably be found in the history of slave labor in the United States. The answer to the second requires rather more elaboration.

So far as climate and soil are concerned, the conditions required for cotton growing are easily fulfilled, but the economic conditions necessary for developing a substantial crop have not hitherto been forthcoming in many parts of the world. In the first place, there must be an ample supply of labor, sufficiently intelligent and capable of steady and continuous work. The question of how that labor is obtained has important effects. Forced labor, i.e., what is virtually slavery under higher direction, may seem to offer a simple solution from the economic point of view; but that is a solution which Anglo-Saxons will not tolerate today. If, then, the crop is to be grown by free labor, what is to be the inducement to the laborer? If he is employed at a wage the cost may well prove almost prohibitive. If, on the other hand, he is encouraged to grow the crop himself as an independent landholder, or even tenant, the price of the crop must be sufficient to remunerate him adequately. But the cotton crop stands in a peculiar position towards its markets. It must go through the first manufacturing process of ginning before it starts on its long journey to the ultimate consumer. In the course of that journey it may pass through many hands and change ownership many times, with the risk that the price paid by the consumer may be entirely disproportionate to the price received by the original producer. If, therefore, the producer is to receive the highest price that the manufacturer can afford to pay, there must be some organization which will take the crop from the producer, pay him immediately the highest price they can afford, handle the crop efficiently, and deliver it to the consumer to the best advantage.

Now in the American cotton belt such an organization has grown up naturally and gradually under the stimulus of private enterprise; and although there is room for criticism of its methods in detail, the result is, on the whole, a system which works pretty well. But in a new country it is improbable that such an organization would grow up of itself, and it is quite certain that the crop cannot be satisfactorily established without it.

The experience of the British Cotton Growing Association in various parts of the British Empire has shown this beyond a doubt. Cotton is a crop which cannot be handled on a small scale in isolated lots. There must be enough cotton grown in one district to run a local ginnery. That means a few thousand bales at least, and it takes time and a great deal of spade work to get a few thousand bales grown in a new district, especially where the natives are entirely ignorant of the crop and very much averse to continuous hard work. Again, the value of a cotton crop depends very largely on its quality, and that is a matter involving careful work in seed selection and the maintenance of a pure seed supply, which can only be expected in a country where the trade has been long established on a large scale. A new country obviously requires the assistance of some external organization which shall not only undertake the necessary propaganda work, but, in the majority of cases, actually do the work itself for at least a considerable number of years. This is a matter in which the poor benighted heathen cannot be expected either to know the right way of starting out or to follow that way when he is shown it by some benevolent autocracy. You cannot blame a West African native, who perhaps has never before seen cotton grown as a cultivated crop, for failing to realize the importance of distinguishing between the value of the native seed which grows wild all round him and the foreign seed offered to him by his white rulers. To him one seems as good as the other, and if the good seed is going to cost him more he is pretty sure to reject it. Again, it is impossible to explain to such a grower why a crop for which he got 40 cents one year is only worth 20 cents the next, owing to the fluctuation of prices in a remote market of which he knows nothing whatever.

The work of the British Cotton Growing Association, which for over twenty years has been experimenting with the possibilities of cotton growing in every part of the British Empire, has done an immense amount of good in certain selected countries on just the lines indicated above. The main results still remain to be seen. For the purpose of the present inquiry it is only necessary to mention their magnificent achievement in reviving the cultivation of Sea Island cotton in the British West Indies. Nor need we deal at length with their work in the Sudan, which soon will result in the production from the Gezira of a substantial crop of Egyptian cotton (possibly to the extent of 100,000 bales within the next five or ten years). What we are most interested in here is the work which they have done in developing the production of cotton of the American type in various parts of the Empire. Their successes in this direction may be briefly enumerated.

In Nigeria they found a considerable crop of native cotton of very inferior type, and they have replaced part of it with improved exotic varieties. In Uganda they have produced the largest single crop of any new country (as high as 81,300 bales of 400 lbs. in 1921), and that of a quality about half-way between the old short-staple American cotton and the old Delta types, from one of which, in fact, the original seed was descended. In Nyasaland, also, a small crop of somewhat similar cotton has been produced, while still further south in Rhodesia and South Africa small quantities have been grown in many districts. In all parts of Africa, however, the difficulties already outlined with regard to the labor supply and the provision of an adequate organization for handling and merchanting the crop, have been constant. Elsewhere in Africa other European nations have worked along similar lines--the Italians in Eritrea and Somaliland, the French in Senegal and their other West African colonies, as well as in Somaliland, Madagascar and Réunion and even in Algeria and Tunis, and the Germans in their former colonies. But the total result of all these efforts is unfortunately still very small (see Table B). In many of the districts production will certainly increase with time--but how much time it is difficult to say.


(In thousands of bales of 500 lbs. approx.)
Country 1912 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 1919 1920 1921 1922
Persia 136 142 139 133 95 82 84 120 125 87 200
Europe and Asia Minor 176 172 157 127 132 119 109 127 131 71 70
Mexico 172 159 108 95 103 119 236 221 230 190 216
Brazil 357 399 387 298 351 419 497 553 427 659 700
Peru 106 134 122 116 129 125 138 187 159 181 175
Other S. American 13 14 14 14 16 20 22 24 42 74 70
W. Indies (British)* 6 7 6 6 4 3 5 6 5 5 4
W. Indies (Others) 13 10 13 14 11 10 12 16 16 25 25
East Indies, etc 61 78 75 72 78 77 73 106 107 97 100
Japan and Korea 52 59 68 63 63 79 91 116 133 130 132
Africa (British)* 64 65 74 66 61 66 47 69 96 156 92
Africa (Others) 16 16 3 2 3 3 5 4 10 25 30
Australia and Mesopotamia .... .... .... .... .... .... .... 1 1 1 3
  ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
   TOTALS 1,172 1,255 1,666 1,006 1,046 1,122 1,320 1,550 1,482 1,701 1,817
   *400-1b. bales.                      

Even leaving aside India, which has already been dealt with, there are many parts of old Asia which are very suitable for cotton growing. Certain districts of Levantine Turkey, for example, have already been proved. In Russian Transcaucasia and Turkestan there are large areas, already mentioned, which before the war produced a very substantial crop, quite a considerable part of it pretty good cotton of American type. This suffered almost complete extinction as the result of the economic disruption of Russia. These southern districts were entirely dependent upon other parts of Russia for their food supplies, and with the internal dismemberment of Russia resulting from the revolution the whole system completely broke down. Again, in Persia there are many scattered areas where cotton has been grown on a small scale. In fact even in Afghanistan, and probably right across the continent to China and Korea, conditions suitable for cotton can be found in many areas. In Korea quite a substantial crop (over 100,000 bales) is now grown, of which a good deal is of the American type.

In Mesopotamia we hoped we had discovered a second Egypt; but owing to physical difficulties with regard to irrigation, and political difficulties with regard to the government of the country, it now seems doubtful whether we can hope for any large addition to the world's supply from that quarter in the near future. Some excellent staple American cotton has been grown, but the total quantity so far is still small, and the prospects are that it will be a good many years before the crop can possibly reach 100,000 bales.

Journeying eastwards, we have still to include Burma and the French colonies of Indo-China in the list of possible new cotton areas. The last possesses a special interest, for there are tales that it was from this district that the original forebears of the modern American cotton were carried to Louisiana by the French, probably in the seventeenth century.

A great deal of attention has recently been centered on the prospects of cotton growing in various parts of Australia. The Australian experiment is peculiarly interesting because it is based on the determination not to introduce colored labor. It has always been maintained that cotton is not a white man's crop, but the authorities in Australia are convinced that with the present high level of prices it should be possible for white men to cultivate some cotton on comparatively small holdings, each man confining his cotton acreage to what his own household can cultivate and pick. Whether the experiment will ultimately prove a success on a large scale it is impossible to say. There seems no reason why it should not if cotton stays at a sufficiently high price. But in any case the amount produced so far is only a few thousand bales and it will be some time before there can be a larger yield.

There remains one large area--the whole of the American continent south of the United States cotton belt--which may be conveniently classified as Latin America. The situation in this area is peculiar in that almost throughout the whole of it cotton is more or less indigenous; in fact, almost certainly South America is the original home of one-half of the cottons grown in the world today, among them the black seeded cottons such as Peruvian and Sea Island.

Let us begin our survey of this area at the northern end. It is unquestionable that, given proper economic conditions, Mexico could grow a vastly greater crop than she has ever done. The country is larger than that of the whole American cotton belt (765,000 square miles) and through nearly all of it cotton is actually being grown in small quantities. In northern Mexico conditions approximate closely those just across the border in the United States, and either American long staple cotton or Egyptian cotton can be successfully grown with the assistance of some irrigation. All down the Pacific coast, which it must be remembered is nearly double the length of the western coastline of the United States (omitting Alaska), cotton is at present being grown in scattered places.

All the physical conditions of this immense area seem to be ideal for cotton growing. Where the rainfall is insufficient it can be supplemented by irrigation; the labor supply should be ample, for the numerous population consists largely of semi-Indian races who are said to be better agriculturalists than the American negro, but without the high standard of living and wages to which the latter have become accustomed. Yet with all this the Mexican crop has never exceeded 250,000 bales, mainly because of the lack of one essential condition, namely peace and good government. There is hardly a doubt that under an ordered régime Mexico might easily grow a million bales or more of good cotton. In place of that the cotton world has to thank Mexico for one thing--the boll weevil--which invaded the United States from Mexico in 1892.

Coming to South America we find that there are parts of almost every state right down to the Argentine Republic where cotton might be grown. But the only countries which as a matter of fact have grown any large quantities are Brazil and Peru. Cotton is grown in Peru in a number of long and narrow valleys where irrigation is easy from rivers fed by the snows of the higher ranges inland. The cotton produced varies greatly in different districts and there are at least four main varieties. The total quantity, however, as will be seen from Table B, has never reached 200,000 bales, nor is there any hope of it exceeding that figure substantially in the immediate future, because the area available in these narrow valleys is comparatively restricted. It is true that on the western slopes of the Andes mountains there are wide stretches of country around the sources of the Amazon where cotton could probably be grown in large quantities; but transport westwards through Peru is almost impossible, and the eastward river route through Brazil to the sea, though relatively cheap, involves a tremendously long carriage. The prospects of this district, however, have not yet been definitely explored.

Brazil is at present the chief hope of the world for a substantial increase of the cotton supply. There can be no doubt that Brazil possesses enormous potentialities as a cotton country. Several different varieties of cotton are either indigenous there or have been acclimatized, and all along the Atlantic coast from San Paolo in the south almost to the mouth of the Amazon we find huge districts in which cotton is grown, though on a comparatively small scale. The cotton varies widely in quality, from the American type, largely grown in San Paolo, to perennial tree cotton that sometimes approaches the lower grades of Egyptian. One of the most important facts with regard to Brazilian cotton is that enormous yields can apparently be obtained quite easily--yields which quite frequently exceed those achieved in any other country in the world, except perhaps Egypt. Yields of a bale an acre are apparently quite commonplace, and far higher figures are frequently reported on good authority. It is very difficult to get accurate statistics of the total quantity grown because a great deal is used in the local factories in the south, and some probably is also taken up in purely domestic consumption. Further uncertainty is introduced into the statistics by the fact that in Brazil the actual bale weight varies greatly. It is doubtful, however, whether the total output has ever exceeded a million bales of 500 lbs. The one thing certain is that Brazil could produce a great deal more than she has ever done, were economic conditions as satisfactory as the climatic.

It seems difficult to understand why Brazil has not done better in cotton growing, especially in recent years under the stimulus of high prices. Probably in most districts there is an insufficient supply of labor; and there is also lacking a proper supervision and control of the crop from seed selection to picking, handling and baling--in all those respects, in fact, in which trained and intelligent supervision is absolutely essential. In many instances, too, large outlays of capital would be profitable, e.g., on irrigation works, but doubtless political and financial conditions prevailing in Brazil make that difficult. The first practical difficulty to be tackled lies in the fact that the crop is very badly handled, no care being shown in picking or ginning to prevent mixture; this, combined with the entire lack of adequate seed selection, makes it impossible to secure the true value for the best of the crop. Recent missions of the International Cotton Federation to Brazil have drawn attention to the enormous possibilities of the country, and have in a measure awakened the local authorities to the necessity of organizing the industry properly if its potentialities are to be adequately exploited.

In the meantime it must be remembered that Brazil is an enormous country with an area larger than that of the United States (excluding Alaska) and that with the best intentions in the world such an area cannot be converted to modern methods in a day. It will take years of patient hard work before serious results can appear. But without doubt Brazil deserves, better than almost any other country in the world except perhaps India, the attention of those in search of a large additional supply of cotton at a comparatively early date. It is asserted that Brazil could grow a crop of 20 million bales, and there seems little reason to doubt the statement. Even under present conditions there is no reason why within a few years she should not produce a crop of at least a million bales available for commercial purposes.

A word about the Argentine, Paraguay and Uruguay will complete our survey. In all three of these countries, particularly in the Argentine, there are possibilities of developing the growth of cotton, of a quality at least as good as in Brazil and with equally high yields. Hitherto, however, the necessary organization of the trade has been entirely lacking, and while recent high prices will certainly attract the attention of local growers to the possibilities of cotton, large results must not be expected in the immediate future. Apart from all other difficulties, the labor supply in these countries presents special problems, but if that obstacle could be overcome by rotating cotton with other crops which require a large supply of labor at other periods of the year, there is no reason why this most southern part of the continent should not rival the north in cotton production.

It may be said in conclusion, then, that there is no fundamental reason why the world should not in the course of time produce a great deal more cotton than it has ever done in the past. The virtual monopoly of the American cotton belt, due mainly to accident and its superior economic organization, will not permanently withstand the competition of other countries where climatic conditions are at least as good and where labor costs approximate much more closely those under which the American cotton crop originally established itself. But for the moment it is idle to speculate what the result might be if these potential areas were developed to their full extent and the world once more provided with an ample enough supply of cotton to produce competitive price conditions. The fact must be faced that such achievements require time and the expenditure of a great deal of energy, capital and patience. And the greatest of these is patience.

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  • JOHN A. TODD, Principal of the Liverpool School of Commerce, author of "The World's Cotton Crops"
  • More By John A. Todd