The soft, fluffy staple fiber grows in a boll around the seeds of a cotton plant, and the fiber is nearly pure cellulose, the most abundant organic polymer on Earth. Fibers from the cotton plant are spun into yarn or thread and made into fiber, yielding soft, breathable textiles. Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in clothing today.
Cotton plants are native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, found largely in India, Egypt, Africa and the Americas.
Representing an estimated 50 percent share of the global fiber market, cotton is grown on six continents. There were an estimated 119.3 million 480-pound bales of cotton produced in the just-completed 2018-2019 season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This marked an increase of 0.7 percent from the previous year’s 118.5 million bales.
India’s market share has grown in recent years, surpassing the U.S. and China as the world’s top cotton cultivator. India produced 26.5 million bales of cotton in 2018-2019 compared to 29 million bales the prior year, according to USDA data.
China is the second-largest producer of cotton, a plant that is cultivated into a raw material, growing 26.5 million bales in the season, a drop from 27.5 million bales in 2017-2018. The U.S. is the third-largest producer of cotton, which in its raw form is sold as a commodity on the global market, growing 27.8 million bales in 2018-2019 compared to the prior season.
Brazil produced 12.8 million bales this last crop season, after harvesting 10 million bales in the prior current season. Rounding out the top five is Pakistan, which grew 8.5 million bale’s worth of cotton in 2018-2019, a slight increase from the year before.
Global trade reached 41.4 million bales this past season, about on par with the previous year. China was the largest importer in the world this past season, bringing in 9.3 million bales. Vietnam imported 7 million bales this year, followed by Bangladesh, with 6.9 million bales imported.
Rounding out the top five, Indonesia brought in 3 million bales this year, while Pakistan imported 2.9 million bales.
The U.S. was by far the world’s largest exporter of cotton. In 2018, the country exported 14.5 million bales, a falloff of 8.2 percent compared to the 15.8 million bales exported the prior year but still representing roughly 40 percent of global exports. The decline was mainly due to a steep drop in exports to China as a result of the trade war between the two countries.
Brazil exports increase to 6.24 million bales from 4.2 million bales last year, while India saw its shipments decline to 3.8 million bales from 5.2 million bales exported in 2017-2018.
Australia’s exports fell to 3.6 million bales this year compared to 3.9 million bales last year. Benin, the largest African cotton exporter, exported 1.3 bales in 2018-2019.