PAN report on cotton’s chemical addiction

by C&A Foundation on Oct 10, 2017

Cotton supports around 100 million rural families across the globe; it provides employment and income, and the garment industry depends on it. But cotton has its problems: it has been associated with everything from forced and child labour to pesticide poisoning of farmers and their families and environmental pollution. A number of high profile initiatives are tackling the problems, but there is still much to do and data is sketchy.

The debate on pesticide use in cotton in recent years has been severely distorted by figures that are out of date and inaccurate. The new Pesticide Action Network UK report, supported by C&A Foundation, aims to shine a light on the current rate of pesticide use in cotton. It examines trends and patterns of use., looking in at six countries and regions who between them account for around four-fifths of the world’s cotton production: Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and the United States.

Findings suggest that total pesticide use in cotton has fallen since the 1980s. But progress is not uniform: some countries have achieved and sustained significant reductions in pesticide use, while others have seen it rise. It is worthwhile noting that those countries who have been most successful at cutting pesticide use – and in keeping it low – have been those who have embraced Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The lesson is clear: if we are serious about reducing pesticide use, we must make more use of tools like IPM and other agro-ecological approaches to control pests.

“This report shines a light on pesticide use in cotton farming. The good news is that pesticide use has declined since the record highs of the 1980s, but cotton is still one of the heaviest users of pesticides is the world and, worryingly, use is on the rise again in many of the big cotton-producing countries. Much more remains to be done.”

Director, Pesticide Action Network UK Keith Tyrell

Foreword to the Report

Anita Chester, Head of Sustainable Raw Materials, C&A Foundation

Pesticides in cotton have been a topic of debate for many decades now. The difference between cotton growers who are agronomically well educated and farming on a large mechanised scale, and smallholder farmers who lack extension support and technical knowhow, is often at the heart of these debates. Interest groups, often in more regulated and advanced economies, claim that pesticide use in cotton is no longer a problem. They argue that the advancement in technologies, like genetically modified varieties (Bt Cotton), have helped reduce the application of pesticides. We know that this is not the complete picture. 

Cotton is still the fourth largest consumer of agricultural chemicals. Excessive use of pesticides, especially by smallholder farmers in underregulated countries, can have huge impacts on human health and the environment. Pesticide poisoning of farm workers, contamination of rivers and ground water, reuse of empty toxic containers, and loss of biodiversity are all very real effects of chemical use. We also have good reason to believe that the extent of the problem is significantly under-reported, and that the use of banned pesticides continues in many developing countries. It is indeed regretful that we continue to take cover under the pretext of outdated studies and lack of data. 

We are thankful to Pesticide Action Network UK for undertaking this study to provide current data on global patterns of pesticide use in cotton and documents the associated problems. The study clearly shows that reductions in pesticide use are possible, but that the adoption of IPM and other agro-ecological practices must be central to these efforts if reductions are to be maintained.

C&A Foundation has supported the study, as it will certainly help fill an important knowledge gap and help stakeholders make informed decisions. Our endeavour at C&A Foundation is to work with farmers to produce cotton sustainably and get off the ‘pesticide treadmill’. This will only be possible if, in addition to IPM methods that lead to more responsible use of pesticides, the industry as a whole also steps up both research and investments on biological control and adopts more agroecological approaches to pest management.

Click here for the Executive Summary, or download the full report