Natural Fibers and the World Economy

World natural fiber production in 2013 (the latest year of complete data) is estimated at 33 million tons, including 26 million tons of cotton, 3.3 million tons of jute, 1.2 million tons of clean wool, and 900,000 tons of coir (fibers made from coconut husks). Production of all other natural fibers, including abaca, flax, hemp, kapok, ramie, sisal, silk, and other fibers summed to approximately 1.6 million tons.

The farm value of natural fiber production in 2013 was around US$60 billion, of which cotton accounted for $45 billion, wool $8-9 billion and jute $2 billion. All other natural fibers together accounted for the balance of about $3 billion.

It is difficult to estimate employment in the agricultural segments of natural fiber value chains because most production occurs in developing countries with weak systems of data collection, most producers are small holders and most labor is hired informally and seasonally, and because many households go in and out of fiber production from one season to the next, making it difficult to know who and how many are employed in any one year. Nevertheless, a reasonable estimate of total employment in natural fiber industries, including family labor, hired labor and employment in industries providing services to agriculture, and including both full time year round employment and part time or seasonal employment, is around 60 million households (about 300 million people), or about 4% of the world’s population.

Wool

Global wool production was 1.2 million tons, clean basis, in 2013, of which apparel wools and carpet wools each represented about half. Australia is the leading producer, followed by China and New Zealand. The wool industry includes several million small-hold and commercial farms worldwide and employs about 5 million households. The value of world wool production in 2013 is estimated at US$8-9 billion, and earnings per household averaged less than $2,000. However, the average earnings figure does not include the value of meat, which is the primary product in most countries.

Sisal

Sisal derives its name from a small port in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico through which the earliest supplies of agave fibers, locally known as Henequen, were exported. Sisal is unique among fiber crops in that it is a perennial, and the first harvest comes only three years after planting. Sisal is labor intensive, and employment in sisal production is estimated at one person per ton, or between 50,000 and 100,000 households or about 300,000 persons. The value of sisal production in 2013 was about $400 million, or around $12,000 per producing household.

Flax/Linen

Fibrous flax is cultivated mainly in Europe in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, and Lithuania, as well as in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Egypt and China. European production of flax fibers ex scutching mills (a process of separating flax fibers from the woody parts of the plant, similar to ginning in cotton) was 160,000 metric tons in 2013, including 115,000 tons of long fibers and 45,000 tons of short fibers. World production is estimated at about 300,000 tons. The value of flax production in 2013 is estimated at $200 million, and about 10,000 households are involved in production. Average earnings per household were about $20,000.

Hemp

About 100,000 hectares of hemp were grown worldwide in 2013, including 40,000 hectares in China, 25,000 in Canada and 17,000 in Europe. (Production in Canada is for seeds only.) Assuming that average farm size is similar to flax, about 2,000 households are involved in commercial hemp production. The value of industrial hemp production in 2013 was approximately $40 million, or about $20,000 per household like flax.

Cotton

Cotton is grown commercially in about 80 countries on approximately 2.5% of the world’s arable land; making is one of the most significant of all cash crops.

An estimated 40 to 45 million households are involved in cotton production around the world each season, and including seasonal labor an estimated 250 million people are employed in cotton production during some parts of each season.  By far, the largest number of people involved in cotton is in China, where an estimated 30 million households are cotton producers. Average farm size in Eastern China is only about one-tenth of one hectare. Another 9 million households are involved in cotton production in the Indian subcontinent, and about 3.5 million African households are producing cotton each season. All other cotton producing regions, including Central Asia, the Middle East, Australia, Europe, South America and North America account for less than one million households together.

The estimated average farm price of cotton in 2013/14 was about $1.70 per kilogram, and with production of 26 million tons, the farm value of cotton production was about $45 billion, or just $1,000 on average per household.

Jute and Kenaf

Jute and kenaf (kenaf is a different plant from jute but has similar fiber characteristics) are cultivated almost exclusively in developing countries of East Asia and in some parts of Latin America. Bangladesh and India accounted for 97% of world production during 2013/14, with most production occurring in the Ganges Delta shared by the two countries. Until the late 1990s, world production of jute fluctuated between 3 million and 3.7 million tons, with the notable exception of a record crop of over 6.0 million tons in 1985. Between 1998 and 2000, world production exhibited a marked decline to an average level of 2.6 million tons because of competition with polypropylene. However, world jute and kenaf production reached 3.3 million tons in 2013/14, and the farm value of production was about $1.5 billion.

Jute is the major cash crop for over 3 million farm households in Bangladesh. Assuming productivity is the same in India and other producing countries, 6 to 7 million households worldwide, meaning around 30 million people, are involved in jute cultivation. When the full value chain, from agriculture, to marketing, transportation, manufacturing and trading are considered, 25 million people in Bangladesh alone, one-fifth of the population, are dependent on jute. The average farm value of jute production per household was just $250.

Silk

World silk production amounts to less than 200,000 tons of filament, but with an average farm value of more than $4 per kilogram, the total value is about $700 million. Silk is extraordinarily labor intensive because of the need to tend the silk worms, harvest the cocoons and unwind silk filament from cocoons; an estimated 300,000 households worldwide are involved in production of silk filament fiber. The average value of production per household was about $2,000.

Coir

Brown coir fiber is obtained from mature coconuts, while white coir fiber, which is finer, is extracted from immature green coconuts. Coir fiber is elastic enough to twist without breaking and it holds a curl as though permanently waved.  Twisted or curled fiber is used in mattresses and bristles that are twisted to obtain a “spring/curling” effect. Total coir production was more than 900,000 tons worth about $400 million in 2013, and an estimated 800,000 households are involved in production. The average value of production per household was $500.

Other Natural Fibers

World production of abaca, other baste fibers, kapok, other fiber crops such as those made from pineapple and banana, ramie, which is often blended with cotton in apparel fabrics, and minor animal fibers ranging from alpaca to yak, totaled about 900,000 tons in 2013.

World abaca production had a value of about $100 million, kapok about $400 million, ramie about $200 million, and minor animal fibers about $800 million. Together, about one million households are involved in the production of these fibers. The value of production per household was about $1,000 for the minor fiber crops and about $8,000 for the minor animal fibers.

Conclusion

In a world economy measured in trillions of dollars, natural fiber industries can easily be overlooked. However, natural fibers provide income to 4% of the world’s population, contribute to food security and poverty alleviation, and serve as a basis for industrialization and value added employment that benefit millions more people and amount to billions of dollars of added economic activity.