One of my favorite books is Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia by Tom Bissell. I purposely sought out a book on Uzbekistan because it was a place I’d never heard much about. At the center of the story is one of the worst environmental disasters in history – the disappearance of the Aral Sea. The political culprits comprise a long line from the Soviet Union up to the present day, but the agricultural offender has always been the same: cotton. Really, one of the most toxic crops to produce – it sucks the land dry and uses heaps of pesticides and fertilizers. In Uzbekistan, kids supply the labor needed to harvest cotton.
China, both a top importer and exporter of the crop, is finding the environmental toll in its own country so serious that it’s hired a Canadian research firm to help it come up with a new policy and trade strategy that will lower its reliance on “dirtier” sources of cotton.