Everyone wants to know what the neighbors are up to. That curiosity carried over when Rafiq Chaudhry recently spoke at the Louisiana Cotton Forum in Monroe, La. Following Chaudhry's presentation, the audience asked numerous questions.

Chaudhry, head of the International Cotton Advisory Committee's technical information services, was in a good position to field the queries. His position requires he stay atop the world cotton scene and crunch data from all cotton-producing nations.

“The ICAC (based in Washington, D.C.) is an association of governments having an interest in cotton production, consumption and trade. No one else has the compilation of information that the ICAC puts out. We have 10 employees from around the world working out of one office,” says Chaudhry.

Wherever he goes to speak Chaudhry encounters cotton farmers eager for information about fellow farmers and competitors outside their borders. But no matter the country, the ultimate criteria for growing cotton are the same: cost of production.

“The cost of production is critical wherever cotton is being grown — it can keep a grower in or kick a grower out of cotton production.”

But factors for cost of production translate differently depending on where you are.

“In Monroe, (Louisiana) I offered the example of countries who continue producing cotton even though their average yield is 300 kilos of lint per hectare. A good example of that is India — the largest cotton-growing country by area in the world. Indian farmers work over nine million hectares. They only get 200 kilos per hectare, but can grow cotton economically. They still take home some money.”

Conversely, in the western United States, farmers often average 800 to 1,000 kilos of lint per hectare, says Chaudhry. But even with that higher yield, it often isn't economical for them to produce the cotton without government supports, as operating costs are very high.

Chaudhry says there are many interesting cotton-producing countries. Syria is one. “Less than 5 percent of the total cotton-producing area is sprayed with insecticides. Whatever is sprayed gets only one or two sprays per growing season. Farmers in Syria aren't allowed to spray whenever and whatever they want. If a farmer notices pest damage, he advises government officials and they visit the field. The officials then decide if it's appropriate to spray insecticides.”

Syria has strictly controlled and contained the use of insecticides for decades.

“They've managed pest problems very well from the inception of cotton production in the country — this wasn't an accident. They've never committed any big mistakes in that regard,” says Chaudhry.

There are other countries that benefit from pest control through climatic conditions. Winter is so severe in Uzbekistan, for example, the pest life cycle is damaged terribly. Insect carryover from year to year is very slight. In Syria, that isn't the case because the winters aren't as severe.

As with most things, however, there are tradeoffs. Water inputs in Syria are very expensive. Herbicides are also used extensively in the country.

Chaudhry says the net cost for growing cotton in Syria is 59 cents per pound of lint. In the United States, that cost — across all regions — is 68 cents. In dollars per acre, Syria's irrigation cost is $243. Irrigation costs $57 per acre in Pakistan and $22 in China. In Australia, the cost is $14 and in the United States it's $46.

In India, most of the labor is manual — using bulls and plows — particularly in the south and southeast. In the north, India's cotton is mostly mechanized. Herbicide use in India is minimal — less than 10 percent of cotton farmers' inputs.

“In India, 15 percent of the farms are under one hectare in size and 25 percent are up to three hectares. Farms between three and five hectares in size are 30 percent of the total. About 70 percent of India cotton operations, therefore, are under five hectares in size.

“There are four cultivated species of cotton grown in the world. India is the only country that grows all four. In the United States, only two are grown: upland and Pima. India has diverse environments; it is able to grow all cotton species. Across the border in Pakistan, only two species are grown.”

Farmers in China typically work a field that is one-fifteenth hectare (about one-fifth acre) in size. Each farmer owns his small plot and grows 10 or 15 rows of cotton. He goes to the farm daily and can check each plant. Unlike countries where variations between fields and farmers are sometimes immense, in China variation between farms is almost non-existent.

Not long ago, Chinese farmers were able to go to local markets and spray cotton fields with whatever they wanted. That led to problems. Free and liberal use of insecticides in China, particularly in the Yellow River Valley, resulted in pest resistance troubles.

“During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese had terrible problems with pests (particularly the cotton bollworm), often having to spray 10 or 15 times per year. The cost of production was increasing. Since about 1993, they've instituted controls and lately Bt cotton. Most of the Yellow River Valley cotton is now Bt and doing much better.”

In China, the cotton is picked by hand, resulting in one of the cleanest cottons in the world, says Chaudhry. The farmers will go into their fields in the morning and find bolls that need to be picked. A farmer will pick one boll at a time — “one per day if that's what he wants to do.”

There are only a few countries where machine-picking is popular: the United States, Israel, Australia, Spain (where 90 percent is machine-picked), Mexico (where 80 percent is machine-picked), Greece, Argentina and several others.

It doesn't always hold true, but most of the time the cost of machine-picking is lower than hand-picking, says Chaudhry.

“In Argentina, hand-picking was the norm for many years. But when machine-picking was introduced there it became popular very quickly. The reason is machine-picking is less expensive.”

In Turkey, there's another reason they need to use machines: labor isn't available. The cost of machine-picking there isn't low, but farmers haven't much choice.

“As there are only a few machines available — maybe 10 in the country — cotton farmers often have to wait weeks for a turn with a machine. It's a dilemma for Turkish cotton because they have inadequate labor, but they can't easily afford machines.” What is the best country for growing cotton in the world? What criteria would Chaudhry use to determine it?

With respect to yield, Israel has the highest year-in and -out. In 2001-02, the average Israeli yield will be 1,586 kilos per hectare. But if yields are high and cost of production is also high, no money is made.

“Israelis are already shifting to extra-fine cotton and aren't growing much now, perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 hectares. That means Israel would have a hard time taking the best-cotton-country title.”

Australia also has high yields — 1,580 kilos per hectare. Pakistan produces 558 kilos per hectare. India produces 281 kilos.

“There's a huge difference there. Australians can't believe that such low yields in the subcontinent can be economical. But it is.

“I think the best cotton country isn't the best-yielding one. To find this out you must look at this criterion: how much does it take to produce a pound or kilo of lint? Using that, the country that does the best job is China. China has high yields, almost non-existent variation, costs are low and the government subsidizes ginning.”

Pakistan is another country that does well, says Chaudhry. During 2001-02, Pakistan had 3.1 million hectares of cotton, which places it as fourth-largest cotton producing country.

What about African cotton?

“The problem with Africa is fertilizer use is very low compared to other areas. All crops in Africa tend to be under-fertilized. Many African countries must import fertilizer and can't afford a lot. Only a limited quantity is provided to cotton farmers.”

In the future there are some general issues that the worldwide cotton industry will face, says Chaudhry. One is cost of production.

“The industry can't afford to continue to operate in the face of rising costs. We must control input costs somehow. For decades, there was increasing cost of production but this was offset by increased yields. But for the last few years that isn't happening. If it were, we wouldn't have a problem.”

Second, the new biotechnologies are coming on around the world.

“Genetic engineering is coming. Some countries aren't fond of GMOs, but I think they'll increasingly accept them. The GMOs may not be grown worldwide, though, because many countries simply don't need the characteristics now being offered. For example, India is very close to adopting Bt cotton. I think there are a few legal hurdles left, perhaps some further testing, and I think they'll adopt it.

Chaudhry says in the long-term, cotton area won't increase. There are obviously fluctuations from year to year.

“But the area hasn't increased in the last 50 years. The area has remained steady between 32 million and 36 million hectares. Even if prices jumped to $1 per pound, history shows that cotton area won't drastically change. If the price jumps to $1, it will likely mean a shift in area of less than 5 percent.”

The world simply can't afford to take much area away from other crops, he says. Around the world, most of the time if the choice is between cotton and a food crop, food will win out.

“Some governments, through price incentives, control the area of different crops. But even in liberalized economies the main thing is to keep their populations fed.”

EDITOR'S NOTE — learn more at www.icac.org