Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Ohio University Press


Voices ranging from the editorial page of the New York Times to organizations such as Oxfam and the presidents of Burkina Faso and Mali have argued that U.S. cotton subsidies depress world cotton prices and hurt African farmers. These policies deny West African countries their comparative advantage in cotton, which they can produce more cheaply and with lower environmental impacts than farmers in the United States. Some have gone as far as phrasing this as a national security issue; editorials in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have suggested that removing subsidies would have a strong auxiliary benefit by defusing a potential source of “feverish anti-Americanism.”1

Unlike the United States, where large corporate farmers dominate production, small farmers grow cotton in West Africa. Small changes in cotton prices have significant implications for poverty rates in a region that is consistently ranked as the world’s poorest. A study undertaken by International Food Policy Research Institute researchers in Benin indicates that reductions in farm-level prices result in increases in rural poverty (Minot and Daniels 2002). The International Cotton Advisory Committee predicts that if the United States removed subsidies, cotton prices would increase between 6 and 11 cents per pound (ICAC, cited in Baffes 2004).

While debates about international pricing policies and subsidies are extremely important for farmers in West Africa, they are not the only relevant debates regarding cotton production there. Local farmers in Burkina Faso have a distinctly different view of cotton affairs.2 Instead of concern over international battles over cotton prices, their concerns are decidedly local. For many farmers in Burkina Faso, cotton is the only way to become wealthy. While they would favor increases in world prices, they are troubled by how cotton policy is being implemented in Burkina Faso, particularly about government determinations of cotton prices, high levels of corruption in cotton marketing and transport, high levels of indebtedness and late payments to farmers. Farmers also highlighted the difficulty of fitting cotton—a crop that requires high levels of inputs, both chemical and labor—into a production system where labor is constrained and access to fertile land is declining. Finally, farmers are concerned about pesticide use. Pesticides, while used at nowhere near the levels typical of wealthier countries, affect environmental health in Burkina Faso because of how they are applied.

Chapter of

Hanging by a Thread: Cotton, Globalization, and Poverty in Africa


William G. Moseley
Leslie C. Gray


Copyright © 2008 Ohio University Press. Reprinted with permission.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.