Cotton, which is native to Southern Africa and South America, is grown on over 90 million acres in more than 80 countries worldwide. The millions of tons of cotton produced each year account for 50% of the world's fiber needs (wool, silk and flax together account for 10%) and is widely used as livestock feed and in food products such as salad dressing and crackers. The United States is the second largest cotton producer in the world after China. In 1997, approximately 19 million bales (enough to make 9 billion T-shirts) were grown in 18 states.
Despite cotton's image as being a natural and pure fiber, conventional cotton farming takes an enormous toll on the air, water, soil and people who live in cotton growing areas. In the United States, 1/3 Pound of agricultural chemicals are typically used in the production of a single cotton T-shirt.
Just 2.4% of the world's arable land is planted with cotton yet it accounts for 24% of the world's insecticide market and 11% of sale of global pesticides, making it the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet. The pesticides used by farmers not only kill cotton pests but also decimate populations of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and parasitic wasps. Because their natural enemies have been eradicated, these target insects, which were once only minor nuisances for farmers, become greater problems and ever-increasing quantities of toxic chemicals must be sprayed to keep them in check. Farmers then become stuck on what is known as the 'pesticide treadmill'.