Cotton is grown in areas with long, hot dry summers with plenty of sunshine and low humidity. The main producers are the USA, China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey, accounting for almost 75 per cent of global production.
Planting begins in late September to mid November and the crop is harvested between March and May. In spring the green of the cotton plantations is transformed firstly into a sea of flowers and then to a mass of fluffy white cotton seeds. Harvesting begins after the cotton has flowered and the seed head or 'boll' ripens and bursts. This 'cotton wool' consistes of long tubular, twisted fibers which cover the seeds of the plant.
Cotton was originally harvested by hand, until the mid-nineteenth century slaves often working in appalling conditions, picked cotton throughout the southern American states such as Texas and Oklahoma. Men, women and children worked in the plantations from dawn until dusk, the cotton bolls were put into heavy sacks which would be emptied into waiting baskets at the end of each row. A good picker could harvest 100-300 lbs of cotton a day, consisting of one-third fibres and two-thirds seeds. Today the process is mechanised, stripper harvesters and spindle pickers are used to remove the entire boll from the plant.
Once harvested, the cotton is cleaned using a device first patented in 1793 by Eli Whitney, which he called a "gin". The cotton gin seperates the seeds and removes the "trash" (dirt, stems and leaves) from the fibre by drawing them through teeth in circular saws and revolving brushes which clean them away. The ginned cotton fibre, known as lint, is then compressed into bales which are about five feet tall and weigh almost 500 pounds. The cotton from a single bale can make more than 200 pairs of jeans, or 3,000 pairs of socks, or 650 bath towels.
Nothing is wasted from the harvest, oil from the cotton seed is used in cooking and for salad dressing, the remaining husks and meal are ground into animal feed and fertilizer and the stems used to make paper.
Although cotton is promoted as a "healthy, natural fiber" conventional, intensive cotton growing uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides, more than 10% of pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants) and thousands of tons of synthetic fertilizers. These are thought to damage public health and the environment especially in developing countries, where they often contaminate precious water resources. Some scientists argue that the use of GM (genetically modified) cotton varieties that are resistant to pest and diseases is the best way to overcome the pollution problems. However increasingly environmentalists argue that organically grown cotton which eliminates heavy chemical applications by using such methods as crop rotation, organic fertilizer, and beneficial insects to control pests is the best way to safeguard health, the environment and the cotton crop.
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