The price of cotton

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MILTON Keynes Peace and Justice Network writes exclusively for Citizen First about winners and losers in the cotton market.

Browse around the shops in Milton Keynes and you may be surprised by some of the goods that carry that little green and blue label – telling you that a product has been fairly traded.

Sheets, jeans, pants, t-shirts, school clothes, cotton wool and handbags are just some of the cotton products you may now see carrying the FAIRTRADE Mark.

The price of cotton on world markets has been rising, as a result of shortages caused by floods and crop problems in some cotton-producing countries. Retailers and consumers are worried. Some cotton farmers are worried too despite the high market price.

Cotton is the world’s most used natural fibre. An estimated 100 million households across 70 countries – from America to Spain, Mali, India and China – are engaged in its production, but the cotton market is not a level playing field.

Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali rely heavily on cotton for export revenues. They produce cotton more cheaply than anywhere else. French Equatorial Africa became the continent’s first major cotton-producing region in the nineteenth century when Britain and France looked to its colonies to supply Europe’s growing garment industry. After independence in West African nations, cotton production expanded, and cotton became known as ‘white gold’ for the contribution it made to rural development.

Now, cotton farmers struggle to survive. A Malian producer, farming two hectares of cotton, may gross $400 a year, while US cotton farmers receive a subsidy of $250 per hectare.

Subsidies in America, China and Europe are distorting world markets. In India, after years when debt-ridden cotton farmers were committing suicide, the government introduced a ‘minimum support price’ at which it buys cotton from farmers. Seven years ago, the World Trade Organisation agreed to address issues in the cotton market, but farmers in developing countries are still waiting.

The introduction of Fairtrade cotton in 2005 has given some farmers in developing countries the chance of a more secure livelihood. About 95,000 farmers, workers and their families in West Africa, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt and Kyrgyzstan now benefit from Fairtrade cotton production.

These farmers are guaranteed a fair price, whatever the price on world markets. They also benefit from a Fairtrade premium to fund local economic and community projects.

Last year, Susan Waters, MD of Cotton Roots here in Milton Keynes, visited the farmers and spinners in India who supply Fairtrade cotton for the company’s school uniform range. She was delighted to see the spinners using their Fairtrade premium to finance a school for children in this rural farming community.

She said: “Connecting directly with, and supporting, this school has made everything seem real and worthwhile.”

Fairtrade Fortnight 2011 starts this year on February 28. We should celebrate the support that UK consumers show for Fairtrade, but the focus on cotton this year illustrates starkly why a fair deal for all farmers must be our ultimate goal.

Go to Milton Keynes Fairtrade Forum’s website, www.mkfairtrade.org.uk, to link to the Fairtrade Foundation’s new report, ‘The Great Cotton Stitch-up’ and for events in Milton Keynes during Fairtrade Fortnight.

> For more information on Milton Keynes Peace and Justice Network visit www.mkpeaceandjustice.org.uk