Cotton is of the most important crops for humanity, placed among the top ten most widely grown and the largest non-food crop worldwide. It is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions, including the Americas, Africa, Egypt, and India. Although cotton is native to the tropics, the generation of new varieties and advances in cultivation techniques led to its expansion to other climates.
Cotton originated in Africa 6-7 million years ago, and through natural dispersion, it developed into separate phylogenetic lineages around the world. The wide geographical distribution of cotton allowed ancient cultures on different continents to domesticate cotton parallelly, giving origin to the four most commercially grown species:
- Gossypiumhirsutum – upland cotton, native to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean (90% of world production)
- Gossypiumbarbadense – known as extra-long-staple cotton, native to tropical South America (8% of world production)
- Gossypiumarboreum – tree cotton, native to India and Pakistan (less than 2%)
- Gossypiumherbaceum – Levant cotton, native to Southern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (less than 2%)
There are around 46 wild species distributed through the tropics and subtropics of the world. The wild species of Gossypium are critical sources of genetic traits such as fiber properties, resistance to damage caused by microorganisms and abiotic stresses (low or high temperature, deficient or excessive water, high salinity, heavy metals, and ultraviolet radiation), and increased yield.
The greatest diversity of wild cotton species is found in Mexico, followed by Australia and Africa. Mexico is the center of origin of 11 of the 13 species of Gossypium in the Western Hemisphere.
Currently, all wild cotton species are facing the risk of extinction due to vegetation removal for touristic developments, unplanned urban growth, land change use to agricultural production, deforestation, crop switching to crop, lack of demand from the market that has had a preference for white fibers since the globalization of cotton markets, land abandonment by ethnic groups with ancestral knowledge, and contamination from genetically modified (GMO) cotton.
To preserve and promote sustainable use of cotton, several institutions are working towards their conservation in-situ (planting them) and ex-situ (seed banks and laboratories). Ex-situ seed and plant conservation aim to support species survival in the wild by contributing genetic material for reintroduction while in situ conservation.
To support the conservation efforts, we are looking for ways to include new varieties of cotton in our portfolio through conversations with our clients, producers, and academics. We are also working towards regenerative production to help restore ecosystem biodiversity and contribute to a healthier planet.
Wegier, A., Alavez, V., & Piñero, D. (2016). Cotton: traditional and modern uses. In Ethnobotany of Mexico (pp. 439-456).Springer, New York, NY.
Wendel, J. F., Brubaker, C. L., &Seelanan, T. (2010).The origin and evolution of Gossypium.In Physiology of cotton (pp. 1-18).Springer, Dordrecht.