Which market is good for cottonseed
Cotton is still the most popular fiber in the world. Polyester is their fiercest competitor. In the meantime even with sustainability, that's what more and more studies claim. But is that true? How has cotton cultivation developed in recent years, what significance does organic cotton have?
We asked the Bremen Cotton Exchange. This is a state-recognized association based in Bremen, which has been dealing with the topic full-time for more than 140 years and, in conjunction with 16 other cotton exchanges worldwide, monitors the contractual processing of the cotton business. Elke Hortmeyer from the Bremen Cotton Exchange explains how the sustainability of cotton is, what we are currently working on and what innovations can be expected in this area.
A number of studies that have recently been published on the topic of sustainability do not give cotton good grades. Why has cotton in particular fallen into disrepute?
Cotton is the largest natural fiber and therefore a key raw material in the textile industry. This means that the focus is very much on this natural fiber.
We have read some of the studies recently published with astonishment. But our world is more that of scientifically verifiable facts.
Actually there is a lot of good to report about cotton production - in terms of the strong consideration of environmental aspects in recent years as well as social issues. However, due to its strong division into around 80 countries, the cotton industry does not have a unified voice with which to speak. So it is quite a challenge for us as the Bremen Cotton Exchange to keep putting the facts on the table. In cooperation with an international panel, the International Forum for Cotton Promotion, we will do even more to ensure that cotton retains its good reputation.
You say that wrong data are being reported about cotton: How has conventional cotton cultivation developed in recent years in terms of sustainability (pesticides, water consumption)?
In the case of pesticides, the use of 11 percent in 1986 was reduced to 6.2 percent in 2012. But the almost famous "25 percent pesticides in cotton cultivation" are still circulating, one of many false reports that are very bad for cotton.
I would like to pick out a few examples here. Compared to the last 20 years, American cotton farmers were able to increase the efficiency of water consumption with artificial irrigation by around 80 percent. Australia reports a 40 percent increase in productivity in water use. Israel is also seen as a pioneer in exemplary irrigation management. Drip irrigation methods were used there as early as the 1970s. Around 75 percent of cotton farmers use clarified and recycled water from water reservoirs and have been able to reduce water consumption in cotton cultivation by 30 percent.
Agricultural research is currently working on the development of cottonseed for plants with increased drought tolerance, which nevertheless meet the quality requirements of their customers.
What about organic cotton? Have the production volumes increased significantly there?
For the past three years we have recorded a downward trend there - now with the latest figures from the Textil Exchange. The last production quantities were given as around 108,000 tons.
Cotton was the first fiber to be marketed as "organic". That automatically implied that normal cotton is not organic. So is conventional cotton not sustainable?
Yes it is. Cotton is a renewable raw material per se and - of essential importance - biodegradable. The economic aspect is also part of sustainability: In addition, roughly 200 million people earn their living in cotton cultivation. The environment: In the last 30 years a lot has changed in cultivation methods, research is very important here. This applies to water consumption, the use of pesticides and social issues. These aspects all flow into the area of "sustainability".
The term is not precisely defined. Especially in cotton cultivation, where we have almost 80 countries in the producer pool, different political and religious systems, different agricultural conditions, “the one” formula for sustainability cannot be found. There is also no such thing as “normal, conventional” cotton.
Controlled organic farming is just one form of responsible farming, but there are other options as well.
When big players like H&M say they want to switch to sustainable materials, is that realistic on the part of the raw materials market?
As I said, our point of view is that cotton per se is a sustainable, biodegradable material. However, there is an increasing interest on the part of the manufacturing industry in transparency and traceability. Where does my cotton come from? Under what conditions was it produced?This is certainly a challenge that the global cotton industry has been grappling with for some time. There are already some options for traceability, which will certainly become even more important in the future - probably not only with natural fibers, but also with man-made fibers, which make up the largest share in textile processing.
Most of the discussion about the sustainability of fibers is only conducted using cotton as an example. Apart from cotton, there is no other major fiber on the market that has to do something like this. The large quantities of man-made fibers, synthetic or natural man-made fibers, do not offer anything comparable.
How do you define sustainable cotton?
We say that sustainability depends very much on the region in which the cotton is grown. A country with very active, developed agricultural research has different requirements than a developing country. A country with a very hot, humid climate has different problems than one with a more moderate climate, there are heavily industrialized regions and others with a high level of manual labor, etc.
Some initiatives and projects such as organic cotton, Cotton made in Africa, Fair Trade and BCI have focused on certain points in the field of sustainability.
A few years ago, the international cotton secretariat in Washington, a worldwide organization, described sustainability as a “journey” in an official statement. We can very well agree with that. We also work in the Social, Environmental & Economic Performance of Cotton (SEEP), an international panel that tries, among other things, to narrow down responsible cotton cultivation more precisely, taking into account these different conditions in the world.
In order to become more sustainable, polyester is often used instead of cotton, because it can be better recycled or obtained from bio-based materials. In view of the growing population worldwide and growing prosperity, this seems plausible. Given these conditions, can the demand for cotton be met in the long term?
Polyester is not endlessly recyclable, and we should also think about whether its production is really more responsible than cotton. There are still many unanswered questions about the production of synthetic man-made fibers. In this respect, we support very intensive research measures in the cotton sector.
How has the price situation for cotton compared to organic cotton developed? And cotton versus polyester?
Cotton prices in general have been somewhat firmer in the last few months, falling slightly again in the last few days of October, but this is always a snapshot.
Both fibers are difficult to compare with each other. Cotton as a natural fiber, i.e. depending on climatic conditions, has a different price development than polyester. Comparing the two fibers with each other is not easy, there are countless different qualities and some volatility in both markets. In general, however, one can say that the price of cotton is currently significantly higher than the price of polyester.
The prices of organic cotton have markups. Since the production is more complex and the yields lower, this is very important for the farmer. However, the premiums have decreased in recent years, in some cases noticeably.
Speculations with cotton and the effects on farmers in developing countries are also repeatedly criticized. As a cotton exchange, what can you do against such practices?
The price development of cotton is often considered a mystery, but in principle it is quite transparent. There are some trend prices, such as the Cotlook A Index and CIF Bremen. Cotton is traded on the ICE, the New York commodity exchange. On the one hand, this is an instrument for retailers that cushions the price risks for the subsequent stages of the textile chain. On the other hand, cotton is also an object of speculation for the financial world. And that is exactly what the cotton industry has no influence on.
As a cotton exchange, we explain, for example, how high the cultivation costs are in the various countries, how high the yields are, as this is an essential factor for the farmers. If the farmer does not judge cotton to be economical, he simply grows other regionally growing crops.
What innovations are there in the field of cotton?
With the TransDry-Techology, a patented process was developed in the USA which, in terms of moisture management and drying properties, has as good or, as it is said, partially better functionality than high-tech synthetic products. Wikking Windows technology offers a comparable function, absorbing moisture from the body and transporting it to the textile surface.
Filipe Natalio, chemist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, has developed a process with a team of scientists that equips cotton fibers with a material that glows under fluorescent light or has magnetic properties. The researchers are convinced that cotton is a very promising material for so-called 'wearables / smart textiles'.
Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, have developed a method with which silver nanoparticles are incorporated into cotton fibers in such a way that they are also present after washing . The amount of silver nanoparticles required to kill bacteria is extremely small. This method can therefore be used very efficiently and economically in terms of costs. In addition, the new method, developed by ARS materials engineer Sunghyun Nam and her colleagues, is inexpensive and environmentally friendly.
The Bremen Fiber Institute, supported by the Bremen Cotton Exchange, is researching the development of a nubbed honeycomb material. The malleable material, recyclable material, consisting of cotton and polylactide can be used in lightweight construction for furniture, soundproof walls and the automotive industry.
Photos: Bremen Cotton Exchange
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