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Import limits may not help Georgia cotton farmers

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

The U.S. government said last week it would begin to set limits on how much clothing China could ship into the country. The move was praised by the U.S. textile industry. But the decision may not help U.S. cotton farmers, says a University of Georgia economist.

Since the global textile quota system ended Jan. 1, U.S. imports of some Chinese-made clothes like trousers and underwear have increased more than 300 percent. In that time, 16,600 textile workers have lost jobs, and 18 U.S. mills have closed, says the National Council of Textile Organizations.

The new quota will allow only a 7.5 percent increase annually for certain Chinese clothing products. The U.S. textile industry believes this will save jobs and bolster the faltering industry.

But the reinstated quota has angered Chinese officials. China's minister of commerce will protest the decision, according to a May 18 report by the official Chinese press agency.

Big buyer

It's unclear how the reimposed quotas will affect U.S. cotton farmers, said Don Shurley, a cotton economist with the UGA Extension Service. But one thing is clear: U.S. cotton farmers need China to buy their cotton.

Farmers will be hurt, he said, if China decides not to buy U.S. cotton, either to retaliate against the quotas or if it doesn't need as much cotton to make clothes.

The United States produced 23 million bales of cotton last year. (A bale is about 480 pounds of fiber.) It was a record crop. The nation usually grows 19 million to 20 million bales annually. Of that, 13 million to 14 million bales must be bought by other countries.

"We're not going to get rid of that much cotton without China," Shurley said.

There are fewer U.S. textile mills. In 1997, U.S. mills used 11.3 million bales of U.S.-grown cotton, Shurley said. This year, they're expected to use 5.8 million bales.

China has bought a lot of U.S. cotton in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Chinese are expected to buy 8 million bales of foreign cotton this year. The United States typically supplies half of that. China has bought 3 million bales so far this year.

China hasn't threatened to stop buying U.S. cotton. But any cut in the country's purchase of U.S. cotton will affect prices, Shurley said.

The world has a surplus of cotton. Farmers worldwide grew 114 million bales last year. Of that, only 103 million bales were used.

"China can get its cotton from other places," he said.

Shrinking industry

A healthy U.S. textile industry helps U.S. farmers, too. By creating a demand for their cotton closer to home, they're less dependent on foreign buyers.

"But a small increase in use by the U.S. textile industry won't immediately help U.S. cotton farmers sell their cotton," Shurley said.

U.S. textile mills have closed for several reasons in recent years, Shurley said. But increased competition by foreign mills and increased imports of finished clothing products have greatly contributed.

Cool, wet spring weather kept many Georgia farmers out of their fields and delayed cotton planting, said Steve Brown, a UGA Extension Service cotton agronomist. Warm, dry weather in May, though, has helped them catch up.

As of May 15, the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service reported that only 38 percent of the crop had been planted. Only 19 percent had been planted a week earlier. Half the crop is usually planted by this time.

"It's too early to say how the crop will turn out this year," Brown said. "A lot can happen between now and harvest."

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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