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After 200 Years, U.S. Remains King of Cotton

Nelson Reinsch, 83, has spent 75 years farming cotton in Texas. His father also grew cotton. Despite decades of experience, he still struggles to keep up with all the pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified seeds that come out every year.
Adam Davidson, NPR
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Nelson Reinsch, 83, has spent 75 years farming cotton in Texas. His father also grew cotton. Despite decades of experience, he still struggles to keep up with all the pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified seeds that come out every year.

The United States dominates the global cotton market. America has ruled world cotton for about 200 years. Almost nothing else about the global economy has stayed so constant for so long.

When you buy a T-shirt that says "made in China," there's a pretty good chance it's made of cotton that was grown on a farm somewhere in the United States. Plenty of countries in Asia and Africa have natural conditions that are better for growing cotton than those in Texas, where much of the world's cotton comes from. But the United States has managed to maintain its supremacy in cotton by investing heavily in technology.

Every year, U.S. taxpayers spend tens of millions of dollars on research to improve the nation's cotton industry. The federal government also gives cotton farmers more than $1 billion a year in subsidies, which provide even more competitive advantage. There are university and government cotton research centers all over Texas and the South, all of which help U.S. cotton farmers compete in the global market. And it's working: U.S. cotton makes up 40 percent of world exports. No other country comes close.

This is typical of the U.S. economy in the age of globalization. America does well in industries that advance quickly, in which research and development -- and not manual labor -- are the key factors of success. In this way, cotton is a bit like software and jet engines -- constantly innovating. The United States is losing out to developing countries in a different set of industries: the ones that don't change that quickly and succeed best with plenty of low-wage workers. That is true of plastics -- and of T-shirts.

Les Cook edited this series.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Davidson is a contributor to Planet Money, a co-production of NPR and This American Life. He also writes the weekly "It's the Economy" column for the New York Times Magazine.

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