Egyptian cotton may be coming out of a long recession now that the government is prioritising developing cotton agriculture to restore Egypt’s white-gold glory. To that end, the cotton question is being addressed comprehensively, from growing methods to manufacture and export. It started with research to strengthen and improve the performance of cotton seeds, expanded into actual cultivation, and moved to facilitating establishing a national cotton industry.
Recent research has revealed high-quality cotton strains that are drought- and heat-resistant. Cotton’s ability to adapt has enabled the government to align the development of cotton agriculture with its efforts to combat climate change.
Cotton is one of the most effective plants for reducing carbon emissions. Increasing cotton-growing space is therefore consistent with efforts to combat climate change.
According to Mohamed Fahim, head of the Climate Change Information Centre at the Ministry of Agriculture, “cotton prevents carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere while carrying out the photosynthesis process. It uses light to convert water, carbon dioxide, and minerals into oxygen and organic compounds.” Sustainable cotton cultivation is not only safe for the environment, it also helps to reduce global warming.
According to the Cotton Incorporated Research Organisation, “No-till cotton absorbs approximately 350 pounds more atmospheric carbon than it emits when grown, proving that cotton contributes positively to reducing carbon emissions.”
This October, Egypt hosted the seventh session of the World Cotton Conference for the first time. “During the conference, Egyptians, Pakistanis, and Indians presented their most recent research on agricultural robotics, pest control, and cotton seed to develop strains that can cope with temperatures as high as 50 degrees Celsius, in addition to enduring drought for up to 25 days by living in irrigated lakes,” Mohamed Negm, president of the International Union of Cotton Researchers, said.
“We also developed cotton varieties that grow faster. As a result, the amount of water used could be decreased. We were, therefore, able to increase the number of cotton acres cultivated to 338,000 acres this year. This is an increase of 100,000 acres compared to last year. These efforts were made possible by the ratification of Law 4/2015, which limited cotton seed distribution to the Ministry of Agriculture, rather than making propagation seeds available to all, which reduces their quality,” he added.
“Despite research on cotton cultivation,” he explained, “the global demand for cotton affected the price of a qintar [45 kg] of Egyptian cotton negatively this season. The war between Russia and Ukraine influenced the industry internationally; textile and clothing factories ceased operations, reducing demand for Egyptian cotton, causing cotton prices to drop by one-third compared to last year.”
Marketing solutions as much as industrialisation are needed. According to Negm, the ministries of agriculture, industry, trade, and business should coordinate their efforts to achieve a satisfactory result. An auction-based marketing system aligned with the international price of cotton on the day of the auction is helpful, since bidding will always be in the farmer’s financial interest.
Making the same point, farmer Yousri Al-Ashri, the president of the Arimon Agricultural Association in Kafr Al-Sheikh, said, “the government established a cotton system for receiving and trading cotton, which gathers cotton from farmers in the governorates and organises sales through auctions. To protect farmers’ rights, we need the cotton system to shield farmers from the business sector, selling cotton at reasonable prices.”
Cotton usually has a slower capital turnover rate compared to other crops, Al-Ashri explained: “Rice, for example, takes about three months to plant and harvest, whereas cotton can take up to eight months. Even with the varieties that can be grown in five or six months, there is still a temporal gap between planting cotton and other crops. As a result, the government should offer farmers an attractive price for cotton crops that exceeds the usual profit from short-term crops.”
Al-Ashri went on to explain that the auction’s starting price should be key in the cost of planting the cotton crop each year: “Last season, farmers sold a qintar for more than LE6,000. This year the average price has dropped to LE4,000, despite the increased cost of cotton cultivation and harvesting requirements. In addition to leasing land fields, fertiliser, fuel to run machines, and pesticides, there is also labour to consider, which is among the most expensive inputs for cotton crops.”
Marie Lewis, head of the Export Council for Ready-Made Garments, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “we can counterbalance the decline in cotton prices by lowering the high costs of growing and processing cotton. There are successful experiments employing technology and machines to reduce the cost of cotton production and environmental resource waste. For example, the irrigation systems applied in cotton-producing countries use treated water for drip irrigation. They also measure soil moisture using high-tech techniques to determine the necessary percentage of irrigation water.”
Mechanised cultivation also reduces seed consumption: “The farmer manually places the seeds in large quantities; but with mechanisation, the plant holes contain no more than four or five seeds. Drones are used to identify plants infected with cotton pests and treat them before they spread to the rest of the crop. So the consumption of cotton seeds decreases while crop yields increase.”
Harvesting methods have the most effect on determining price. Lewis explains, “machines adjust plant stem height to align with mass harvesting since manual harvesting significantly raises the qintar’s price. What comes next is the ginning process, where the seeds are collected and disinfected using machines, removing dust from cotton seeds, sterilising them, and protecting them from pests until planting. All of these automated processing stages can reduce the cost of our cotton production if applied in Egypt.”
The demand for extra-long cotton is high, but medium- and short-length cotton have been widely adopted in Egypt and around the world. “Despite its reputation for producing extra-long cotton, Egypt accounts for only three per cent of the total cotton consumption. If we switch to harvesting long cotton with automatic reaping, we will be able to lower long cotton prices and use more of it in the textile industry,” Lewis said.
Prompted by the desire to reduce the amount of imported cotton textiles, the government was encouraged to cultivate medium-length cotton, instead of importing it, for domestic consumption. “Egypt has reclaimed approximately 1,200 acres of land in the New Valley governorate’s East Oweinat area for short-staple cotton cultivation,” she elaborated.
According to Lewis, Egypt has supported and renewed the cotton growing infrastructure over the last five years, working to restructure the cotton and textile industry in governorates such as Mahalla Al-Kubra and Kafr Al-Dawwar. It also restructured the business sector, combining 32 companies into approximately nine, renovating and modernising six cotton gins to make them produce high-quality cotton before spinning it into yarn. In Mahalla Al-Kubra, the world’s largest spinning factory was built, with the output diverted to meet the Egyptian private sector’s textile and clothing needs. Cotton and clothing industries now have a world-class international dyeing facility to help them maintain their leadership in the field.
Aspiring to resuscitate a long established industry based on national cotton cultivation, Egypt has also developed the spinning sector to support the cotton system. The goal is to develop manufacture and export. Previously, Egypt suffered from being a country that exported what it did not produce, as it sold raw cotton with no manufacturing capabilities. The textile industry received billions of dollars in investments, according to Mohamed Abdel-Hamid, executive director of the Textile Development Technology Centre. However, the cotton industry found new life following years of settling for raw material export. Import restrictions urged countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Italy to invest in Egyptian land and set up spinning mills that use Egyptian cotton, renowned for its long soft threads.
“On the other hand,” Abdel-Hamid added, “the Egyptian government focused on considering the environmental aspect when developing the textile industry, from seeking methods to treat wastewater to be used in textile dyes, to conducting experiments on growing coloured cotton to avoid the dyeing process. In addition, it developed methods to purify the air of dust produced by the cotton industry, such as straw that absorbs lint and collects it. This is also used to manufacture other products such as carpets.”
In May 2020, Egypt officially joined the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and adopted its sustainable programme. The programme educates farmers and awards BCI standard certification to those who commit to sustainable production practices and employee welfare.
Egypt joined the BCI as part of a new campaign to boost sustainability and improve cotton farmers’ living conditions. It implemented the BCI in Kafr Al-Sheikh and Damietta. Approximately 2,000 cotton farmers received training and a cultivation certificate during the previous cotton season.
Global challenges have added urgency to the aim of maintaining a sustainable cotton cultivation strategy. The impact of climate change is likely to be felt in agrarian production in several countries. As a result of temperature changes and water scarcity, many crops will be significantly impacted, and fortunately cotton tends to be more resilient to climate change than other crops. Egypt strives to conserve its water resources while also rationing the use of seeds, energy, and other inputs related to cotton cultivation. Additionally, new varieties and strains of cotton were developed to be grown in areas with more suitable temperatures, even if they were not previously allocated to cotton cultivation.
A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly