Plows and Pitchforks/ Entre arados # 6

Textiles: Wool vs. Petroleum.


“Sheep Farmer are ya? You won’t be eating here tonight” said our New Zealand host, from his hand-crafted seat at the head of his wooden table. I was part of a group of U.S. college students touring New Zealand agriculture. We were guests at a sheep and red deer farm in a hilly region of the South Island in the spring of 2001. Initially, I was excited to meet a sheep producer from the other side of the world. However, the U.S. dollar was weak and the New Zealand dollar was strong. This led to the American markets being flooded with Australian and New Zealander sheep and wool products.

The U.S. responded by imposing a tariff on New Zealand and Australian sheep and wool exports. Our New Zealander sheep producer-farm-stay host had a right to be frustrated since the U.S. trade policy depressed his local market prices for lamb, mutton and wool. At first, I was concerned that I had paid all this money and now I wasn’t allowed to eat. It turns out that he was bluffing, but I was still wary.

Sheep grazing in pasture, South Island, New Zealand 2001 (Photo taken by author).

According to the February 7, 2013 edition of the Express Tribune, the Pakistan textile industry was forced to lay off workers because an unreliable natural gas supply has caused a 50% reduction in production output. The transition from natural fiber textile production, including silk, cotton, wool, furs, and animal hides, to synthetic fabrics began after 1884. According to a 1942 report titled “Synthetic Fibers and Textiles” by the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station, the first patent for synthetic fiber technology was granted by the French government in 1884.

Even though the global human population has increased by billions since 1900, the demand for woolen products has suffered. United States farmers and ranchers produced approximately 300,000,000 pounds of washed and unwashed wool in 1913. United States Department of Agriculture records from 2012 show a total of 28,500,000 pounds of wool produced, which is a 90% decrease from 1912 levels. 

Petroleum based synthetic fiber production relies on fossil fuel, which isn’t subject to the same constraints as the agricultural production processes it replaced. British Petroleum estimated in a 2013 report on energy that we have about 17 decades of recoverable natural gas left. Therefore, as natural gas becomes depleted, the price of synthetically produced textile products will continue to increase.

An increase in fabric prices overall will also drive demand for natural clothing higher. With a 90% decline in wool production since 1913 as one facet of the coming crisis, will global agriculture be able to meet future demand levels for its fiber products? Biomass products such as corn starch are already being used to produce fabrics similar to polyester, as reported by the National Geographic News (July 17, 2001).

Too many questions are being left unanswered. Will the textile industry of the future still show preference for chemically-produced cloth? Or will global sheep and wool production become even more important as grain production yields continue to struggle with ecosystem production limits?

I believe that because sheep are good grazers of marginal lands that even some cattle have trouble occupying, that sheep will continue to be important to agriculture. The expansion of cotton lands is already competing with croplands devoted to raising food crops. One lesson I learned during that conversation with the New Zealand sheep producer was that farmers, on a global scale, need to set politics and governments aside in order to work together to address the future of the industry. Rather than depending on the geopolitics of national agricultural output surveys (which tend to be at least ten years behind when measuring current trends), and reports from news outlets, a new dialogue should begin between the farmers from all corners of the globe in order to actually learn what it means to raise food, fiber, feed, and fuel across political boundaries.

If those communication networks can be built, then perhaps some of the foreboding challenges faced by the agricultural industry won’t seem as insurmountable. You may reach me at mmbernau@gmail.com or on twitter @veritzombie.

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