New Internationalist 323 May 2000
HARTMUT SCHWARZBACH / Still Pictures
Cotton is promoted as a ‘natural’ fibre but uses
vast quantities of dangerous pesticides. Dorothy Myers
examines why organic has to be an option.
On 24 August 1999 in the village of Maregourou in Benin, West Africa, three boys aged 12 to 14 years went to weed their father’s cotton field. The cotton was being grown alongside corn. The day before their father had sprayed the field with endosulfan, a highly toxic pesticide. The boys did not know this. After work they were hungry and took a few corn cobs to eat. Fifteen minutes later they started to vomit. They were taken to the nearby hospital at Bembereke where one of the boys died. The other two survived.
Endosulfan was reintroduced into West Africa to combat American bollworm caterpillars which penetrate cotton flower buds and bolls and destroy them. The pesticide is known to be highly toxic and has been banned in many countries. It is particularly dangerous in some developing countries where workers are often unable to afford to protect themselves. The boys in Benin are not the only ones to suffer from pesticide poisoning. A substantial number of cases, many of them fatal, have resulted from the reintroduction of endosulfan.1
Farmers in the region know only too well what endosulfan does to wildlife. One farmer observed how even the earthworms died as they emerged from the contaminated soil and then the birds which ate the earthworms died too. ‘Fields smell awful two or three days after spraying because virtually every living thing has been killed and starts to rot,’ said a second.
These dramatic experiences are stark testimony to the effects of using highly toxic pesticides to produce cotton. To counter pressure from synthetic fibres cotton has been successfully promoted as a healthy ‘natural’ fibre. However, the conditions of production and processing are often far from ‘natural’ and are largely unknown or ignored by consumers. But they are certainly not unknown to the producers, especially poor producers.
Cotton is an important source of much-needed cash for small farmers. And it also adds to the national economy of many developing countries like Benin where cotton fibre accounts for 35 per cent of export earnings. It is grown in at least 60 countries. For example in Mali, 50 per cent of export earnings are derived from cotton and textiles; in Pakistan it is more than two-thirds.
Cotton still provides about half of all global fibre requirements. The six big producers are the US, China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. They account for about 75 per cent of global production. The main traders (which account for seventy per cent of world trade) are the US, Australia, Pakistan, Paraguay and countries of the former Soviet Union.
The size of the world’s cotton-growing areas has not changed much since the 1930s but average yields per hectare have increased threefold through the intensive use of synthetic chemicals. Irrigation and the use of higher-yielding plant varieties have also played their part.
But cotton is very prone to insect infestation and large quantities of the most acutely toxic insecticides are used in conventional cotton production. It accounted for about 24 per cent ($1,776 million) of the global insecticides market in 1994, even though the crop occupied only 2.4 per cent of the world’s total arable land. It is clear that the quantity of chemicals used is disproportionate to the size of the area under cotton.
Figures for poisonings and deaths related to pesticide use reflect these problems. In developing countries up to 14 per cent of all occupational injuries in the agricultural sector and 10 per cent of all fatal injuries can be attributed to pesticides. And these problems are not restricted to developing countries: in one study in California cotton ranked high for the total number of worker illnesses caused by pesticides. Methods of applying the pesticides can compound the problem, especially aerial spraying which is common in the US, Australia, Egypt and Uzbekistan.
The environmental and health effects of massive pesticide use on cotton are dramatically illustrated in Uzbekistan. Intensive pesticide use and poor irrigation practices have led to such a high level of contamination that fields have become totally barren and drinking water supplies over vast areas are polluted. There has been a frightening increase in the incidence of childhood blood diseases and birth defects.
The most visible effect has been the reduction in the size of the Aral Sea which has lost 60 per cent of its water in 30 years because of changes in river flows for large irrigation projects. On the dry lake bed a salt desert has been created, with dust storms threatening crops and human health in neighbouring areas. The sea itself, once the fourth largest body of freshwater in the world, is too saline and polluted with pesticides to support fish.
Environmental problems are not restricted to Uzbekistan. More than 70 per cent of cotton is produced under irrigation. Water problems associated with growing cotton range from contamination of irrigation ditches by spraying or from washing equipment, to contamination of groundwater supplies from leaching out of pesticides. Resistance by pests to certain overused pesticides is also a serious problem — the endosulfan in Benin was reintroduced because the bollworm had developed resistance to other pesticides. In some places cotton has been abandoned altogether as a result.
But momentum for change has built up in recent years. A combination of interests including farmers, companies, informed consumers and environmentalists are lobbying for organic and pesticide-free cotton.
Farmers in Benin have also become involved. A group from Mangassa in the Djidja District heard about the organic cotton programme run by a local organization which promotes farming without pesticides and invited a staff member to visit their village.2 As a result 18 farmers joined the programme. They expect that yields will fall at the start of conversion to organic but will slowly increase as the system becomes better established.
HJALTE TIM / STILL PICTURES
Kitche Denis is one of the Mangassa farmers:
‘We used chemicals on our cotton crop and had higher yields than now but we were often sick and had to spend some of the money we earned on medicines. After harvesting groundnuts this season I grew cotton without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. We used palm oil cake (known locally as tchotchokpo), ash and cattle manure as fertilizer, and we put organic matter back into the soil through the cotton leaves which fall early.
‘We treated the pests with extracts of neem tree, crushed papaya leaves, cow urine and garlic. We collect neem and prepare it ourselves. Pest infestation can be high and it is hard to treat the bollworms so we would like to have other ways of protecting the plants as well.
‘There are ten in my family and we all work in the fields, sometimes with extra help. The women do the sowing, weeding and harvesting. And with organic agriculture it is safe for them to be in the fields with the children now, because the natural sprays do not make us ill.’
Organic cotton is grown in more than 15 countries but still remains a tiny fraction of global cotton production. The biggest producers are Peru, Egypt, India, Brazil and the US. Projects and experiments have also expanded during the 1990s to include many countries in Africa.
Signs are that organic cotton is steadily moving into the mainstream, creating increased demand. The Co-op (a consumer co-operative and the second-largest retailer in Switzerland) and the Nike and Levi Strauss corporations in the US have become involved. The Co-op began selling organic textiles in 1993 and sold two million organic items in 1998.
The textile industry in the North is under pressure: from environmental regulators trying to control pollution at the processing stage, from consumers calling corporations to account for their social and environmental behaviour, and from the textile industry in the South which undercuts their prices.
Organic cotton could provide some of the answers, though as yet there are still a number of difficulties to overcome. For example, indications are that organic can be cheaper than conventional but a lot depends on how cotton is grown, whether labour is paid or not, and the price of land. For small farmers money can be saved by shelling out less for inputs but these may be offset by extra labour costs. It appears that extra costs are often added along the chain which can result in higher prices when the cotton reaches the shops. And as long as organic cotton remains a ‘niche’ operation, economies of scale will be difficult.
Scaling up production to meet the demands of an expanding market is the next challenge in the organic cotton story. There is certainly plenty of interest in doing this on the part of the farmers in Benin. According to Kitche Denis:
‘We are now in our fourth season of growing organic cotton and production is increasing year by year. We are sure this year’s crop will be higher again. My message to other farmers is that we should rely on ourselves instead of depending on others. Our neighbours admire our village and want to become like our group and the number of farmers in the project is increasing each year.’
For those who die or become ill through pesticide poisoning the change cannot come too soon.
For more information see Organic Cotton: from field to final product
edited by Dorothy Myers and Sue Stolton, IT Publications, 1999.
See also NI 302 The Big Jeans Stitch-up.
1 Ton/Vodouhe in forthcoming Pesticide News.
2 Organisation Béninoise pour la Promotion de l’Agriculture Biologique (OPEPAB),
02 BP 8033, Cotonou-Gbégamey, Benin. Tel/Fax. (229) 30 19 75.
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
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