Cotton Pickin’

North America has a substantial number of NGO’s working in the environmental area, a good many of which deal with the oceans. I’m surprised at the number and scope of these organizations, most of which draw their funding from US foundations. The foundation concept works better in the States than anywhere else, partly because there are many wealthy philanthropists, and partly because citizen activists are a force since the war of independence.

Activism by private citizens is seen in the US as a force for good, which may explain why there is grass roots support for the protesters in Tahrir Square. I have no sympathy with Mubarak, having lived under Salazar and his cronies until I was in my mid-teens, but I am also well aware that a proportion of the protesters are militants of the Muslim Brotherhood. Last Thursday I was driving down from Campbell River, the salmon center of Canada’s west coast, and I heard an interview with a member of the Brotherhood. The rhetoric of “Islamic democracy” has echoes of Hamas, and there was enough thinly disguised vitriol to poison a busload of well-meaning democrats.

But the NGO people I met last week were all committed to a better world, and the business people were eager to be portrayed to be as green as possible. Some were convincing in their sincerity, others less so. And unfortunately, the social pressure for sustainability is in good part a privilege of the first world, the rest of the world is too busy just finding something to eat every day.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has recently released data on world food prices that show a trend toward strong increases, driven by a variety of factors. Any rise in the price of oil has a knock-on effect because of transport costs, and the events in the Mid-East, and in particular the threat to shipping through the Suez Canal, are already putting pressure on oil. Other “novelty” factors such as the cultivation of biofuel crops also compete with agricultural products. Between now and 2050, the baseline estimates from FAO are a hundred percent increase in the cost of maize, and around fifty percent for rice and wheat.

In the case of maize, that would seem to be a yearly increase of 2.5% (100/40), but the math is a little trickier and it doesn’t work that way: the annual price rise is relative to the cost for the previous year, so it works out as a 1.7% yearly increase over the next forty years. For rice and wheat you’d expect the rate to be half that, but math is like bankers, wicked and sneaky, and a 50% increase is just over 1% price inflation per year.   

FAO also announced last week that its food price index, based on 55 commodities, showed a 3.5% increase from December to January. The index has been going up continuously for the last seven months. In Maputo, Mozambique, there was a two day riot last July because of food price hikes. In the North African countries, food prices are up there with unemployment and corruption as causes for unrest and revolution. Food security is fundamentalism too.

Demand for cotton is one of the factors pushing up food prices, and this includes Chinese demand, which is at an all time high. Cotton yields are down due to flooding in Pakistan and elsewhere, and hoarding of production has also put pressure on prices. If farmers favor cotton over food crops when the spring rolls around, grains, bread, and other staples will be more expensive.

Cotton is grown on an industrial scale, which means that a variety of chemicals are applied to ensure optimal production and processing. Despite many criticisms levelled at aquaculture, there is no production environment on this planet with less biodiversity than fields used in intensive agriculture, where one single crop is privileged and everything else destroyed.

Cotton production requires the usual array of pesticides and herbicides, and prior to harvest, defoliants are applied. Leaf in Portuguese is folha, making it clear that a defoliant de-leafs, i.e. strips the leaves of the cotton plant. The stuff that’s used has a similar action to Agent Orange, applied by the US in Vietnam. Defoliants, dessicants, and growth accelerators are widely used in preparation of cotton for mechanical harvest. The harvesters are designed to either pick or strip, the first machine gets the cotton without damaging the plant, the second strips the bolls.

After stripping, cotton mills do the rest, processing the fibre and converting the seed into oils. The dead leaves and other trash left behind in the fields by the harvesters is disposed of. That means detritus is dumped into holding ponds and decomposed, or biodegraded. Or perhaps just dumped.

 In the cotton mills, the fibre is extracted for clothing, seeds pressed for oil, and the remainder ground up and sold as cotton meal  for cattle feed. Adult beef cattle in particular, that can process the stuff because they are immune to gossypol, a poison that the plant contains. Cottonseed oil is processed to reduce the level of gossypol and widely used for cooking.

A salmon farm on Vancouver Island. Compared to industrial agriculture, this kind of food production is far more environmentally friendly.

Naturally, chemicals used in production find their way into the system. Well, into the two systems: our own, and ecosystems in general.

Organophosphorus products such as Paraquat are highly toxic, and rapidly acummulate in the food chain.  All this stuff is there in the clothes, and gives a whole new meaning to the Miss Wet T-Shirt contest. Unless your cotton is organically sourced, you have more chemicals in your closet than the local Rite Aid.

And through oil and beef these pollutants go right into the food chain: up one level to beef, and then an extra marinade for anything fried in oil. Yum.

I heard a story about this whole thing at a recent lecture, and in some of those holding ponds in the US people are paid to sit around and shoot any birds that try to eat stuff out of the water, to avoid further environmental contamination. The guy who told the story cottoned on to it (sorry) because he makes clothes for a living. In one of the stores he opened all the staff got headaches after a couple of days from the air conditioning. The recirculated air was full of formaldehyde from the cotton.

I’m just popping out for a bit of fish.

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One Response to “Cotton Pickin’”

  1. Kelly Porter Franklin Says:

    Hi Mr. Wibaux
    You’ve mentioned Agent Orange here in your “Cotton Pickin'” piece and I thought some of Canada’s history with the stuff might interest you.
    Two documents I have tell part of the story: Information Manual For Vegetation Control in Southeast Asia and another that is known only by its filename of A0216071 2.pdf. The first, IMFVCiSA, was a U.S. Army/Fort Detrick effort commissioned by Robert McNamara in 1961. The Advanced Research Program Agency (ARPA, now known as DARPA -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA ) helped out, as did Dow Chemical, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Hawaii, among others. You might be surprised to see New Brunswick mentioned on page 42 of of this Manual. I sure was, seeing as I lived in Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, the subject discussed. The other document is a BRIEFING NOTE TO THE MINISTER obtained under our Access to Information Act laws and it says, in part:
    “3. Precision regarding how Gagetown was selected for testing of Agent Orange forty
    –(40) years-ago is difficult to obtain. It does appear from one set of available records that the US Department of the Army, Fort Detrick, Maryland, was charged with finding effective chemical agents that would cause rapid defoliation of woody and herbaceous vegetation. To further develop these objectives, large areas similar in density to those of interest in Southeast Asia were needed. In March 1965, the Canadian Ministry of Defence offered large areas of densely forested land located at CFB Gagetown for experimental tests of defoliant chemicals. This land was suitable in size and density to meet US objectives. Another record indicates that in a cooperative effort with the US, it was apparent both countries would benefit from brush control testing and evaluation.
    Throughout the years 1955 to 1964, CFB Gagetown personnel had difficulty in
    controlling seedling growth and timber regrowth. The same document suggests that
    Canada would benefit from the technical advice, which could be given by US experts. It also indicates that the US would benefit by being given the use of tracts of first and second growth timber in an environment similar to that of the Northern United States where new herbicides, which had never been employed in this type of climactic zone, could be tested. The United States interest in this trial was related to evaluating effective measures for reducing foliage coverage.”
    It’s not my intention to “prove” any of this here but what these two documents (along with many others) show is that Canada gave CFB Gagetown to the U.S. military so massive field-testing of all the chemical warfare weapons (all the Agents: Orange, White, Blue, Purple, etc.) could be done prior to and concurrent to the Vietnam War. We had one hell of an arrangement, literally.
    Something that will raise a great doubt in anybody’s mind about Ottawa’s “official” story of what happened in CFB Gagetown (nothing to do with Vietnam…it was just a couple of barrels…no subsequent health effects…) is the fact that all the chemical warfare weapons sprayed on Vietnam (and Southeast Asia during the War) were first sprayed in CFB Gagetown. In exactly the same order. In the same concentrations. With the help of Dow, ARPA, Fort Detrick, the U.S. Chemical Corps, John F. Kennedy, various Canadian government agencies and with the Pentagon leaving a paper trail of who was paid for what and when. It’s all quite a story and it’s all untold.

    Kelly Porter Franklin
    2619 Randle Road
    Nanaimo, BC
    V9S 3X3
    (250) 760-0170
    kelly_franklin@telus.net

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