Try to imagine life without cotton. We’d miss thousands of things like comfortable shirts and other clothing, towels and hygienic wipes in the bathroom, and even important car parts. The University of Georgia library would see its doctoral dissertations disappear because they are printed on cotton rag paper for preservation purposes.
Georgia’s history is closely connected to cotton. Early production presented a problem: The sticky seeds were difficult and time-consuming to separate from the fibers. Eli Whitney’s 1793 patent of a “plucking” type gin was a huge improvement over earlier models that used rollers.
Soon, the Southern cotton industry expanded by leaps and bounds. Ever-growing need for labor led to the deplorable development of the slave trade, which peaked in the mid-1800s. The Georgia State Cotton Museum in Vienna, south of Macon, has exhibits documenting the history of the crop and its cultivation. To see an old cotton gin building from the year 1900, one only has to go as far as Davis Street in Braselton, near the intersection with Ga. 53.
Less than two decades after this gin was built, the boll weevil started its devastating invasion of Georgia. The insect destroys young cotton plants by laying eggs in their buds, which then causes its larvae to feed on the plants. The resulting damage makes the plants unusable.
Massive countermeasures led to the boll weevil’s eradication in 1990. They also generated a routine of pesticide use, which is a concern in today’s cotton production. According to the USDA, cotton producers use less than 1 pound of insecticide and 2 pounds of herbicide per acre. Nevertheless, pesticide worries have led to the emergence of “organic cotton.” Produced without dangerous chemicals, the new crop is finding increased acceptance worldwide. It takes three years to convert a plantation to pesticide-free operation, due to the amount of time required to clear the chemicals from the soil.
While the number of operators is small but growing, an Oct. 2 press release from the Cotton USA organization (www.cottonleads.org) promises other significant environmental progress. Its task force has set the goals of reducing land consumption by 13 percent, decrease water and energy use, drop greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent and increase natural soil fertility.
As the third-largest producer in the country, Georgia accounts for 10 percent of total U.S. cotton output. Good news about cotton is good news for our state.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.