Science in Society Archive

Picking Cotton Carefully

Cotton is known as “white gold” in some parts of the world. But the price in pesticides poisonings and the decimation of ecosystems is too high to pay. Only a return to organic cotton farming will turn the tide. Sam Burcher

Fashion leader backs organic cotton

Designer Katherine Hamnett d id something very different at London Fashion Week this year. Instead of showcasing her latest ready to wear clothes she featured a report and a film by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) in collaboration with the Pesticides Action Network (PAN ), exposing the human health and environmental cost of pesticide use in global cotton production.

Hamnett is famous for inspiring a fashion campaign for bold, life-affirming slogans printed onto cotton t-shirts during the 1980s. Nearly thirty years later, her collections are still highly prestigious. But now, she is doing everything in her power to support organic cotton farmers, and produces her unique t-shirts only on certified organic cotton, and her latest slogan “Save the Future” is a testament to her values.

At the Museum of Natural History, which hosted this year's event , I asked h ow she felt about GM cotton. “I'm terrified of it,” she replied. “Bt cotton is of no benefit to farmers and has been a massive failure. Monsanto should be broken up! They have taken GM cotton to the scale of genocide in countries like India, and created devastation on all levels.”

ISIS shares her concerns about Bt toxins in GM crops [1]( GM Food Nightmare Unfolding and the Regulatory Sham SiS 33 ). We have also thoroughly documented the failures of GM cotton worldwide [2] ( GM Cotton Fiascos Around the World , SiS 25 ) The EJF and PAN joint report [3] on the deadly chemicals used in non-organic cotton is another da mni ng indictment of the agrochemical industry, and a wake-up call to the fashion industry and consumers to demand organic cotton across the board.

Potted history of chemical-free cotton

For over 5 000 years, global cotton production has occurred without the aid of hazardous agrochemicals. Cotton was planted at low densities and rotated with other crops to ensure the health of the soil. Pest cycles were taken into consideration before planting and harvesting. Things changed after World War II with the advent of neurotoxins such as DDT that were considered to be a cheaper way of controlling pests than strategic crop management and agricultural labourers. The recent new wave of GM cotton represents 30 percent of the global cotton and estimated to reach 50 percent by 2010 [4]. Today, only 0.15 percent of the world's cotton is guaranteed to be free of pesticide, and organic.

In fact, cotton accounts for 16 percent of global chemical pesticide use, more than any other single crop , and reaps US$2 billion for the chemical industry every year [3]. Of that , US$112 million is spent on Aldicarb, an acutely toxic pesticide classified by as “WHO1a” by the WHO , or “extremely hazardous.” One drop is sufficient to kill an adult male . Yet one million kilos of Aldicarb was applied to cotton crops in the USA in 2003. At least 1 million agricultural workers around the world are hospitalised because of acute pesticide poisoning each year.

Polluted food chain and water supplies

Cotton is noted as the biggest and most important “non-food” agricultural crop in the world yielding 21.8 million tonnes per year. But some 34 million tonnes of high protein cottonseed is also produced for food and feed annually. Around 24 million tonnes of whole cottonseed, cottonseed husks and meal is used in animal feed, and can make up a quarter of a dairy herds' total nutrition. A further 3.1 million tonnes of cottonseed oil is used for cooking by 8 percent of the world's population. In some areas as much of 65 percent of the cotton harvest can enter the food chain. The FAO and WHO recognise that the chemical pesticides applied to cotton can contaminate cottonseed and its derivatives. While several other studies have shown that cottonseed is a “significant pathway by which hazardous pesticides applied to cotton may enter the human food chain.” Therefore, Monsanto has deliberately misled regulators by stating that Bt cotton is not used for food.

Cotton is grown mainly in China, USA, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa. Numerous studies have documented detectable levels of lindane and endosulfan, (both organochlorines known for adverse health and environmental impacts) in local water resources in these areas. In India, over 3 000 tonnes of endosulfan is applied to cotton crops annually. In Brazil, samples were taken from streams, rivers and surface water in the Mato Grosso cotton state, of which 80 percent were contaminated by endosulfan. In Ghana's Lake Volta lindane was present in 22.7 percent of samples and endosulfan present in 18 percent. In the US, an organophosphate called dicrotophos used extensively in cotton growing was detected in some 35 percent of samples.

Children and workers at risk

The worst affected by pesticides are the developing countries, where 99 percent of cotton production takes place. The WHO report three million pesticide poisoning per year and 20 000 unintentional deaths largely in developing countries among the rural poor [4]. Human causalities are unsurprising as pesticides are designed to inhibit the growth of organisms by impairing biological processes necessary to life. Symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning include vomiting, skin rashes, headaches, tremors, respiratory problems, muscle cramps, blurred vision, lack of co-ordination, seizures and death.

India has 8.3 million hectares under cotton, the largest area in the world. Despite using only 5 percent of land area, cotton accounts for 55 percent of the annual total of US$355 million spent on pesticides. A staggering US$255 million is spent just on controlling the bollworm cotton pest every year . Children of farm workers are particularly vulnerable to agrochemical exposure as they play or help in the fields [3]. A 2003 study in India compared 899 children living in cotton regions with those where few agricultural pesticides were in use. The results showed that children living in cotton producing areas performed significantly worse in tests assessing mental ability, cognitive skills, concentration, balance and co-ordination. A 2005 study in three different villages all farming cotton recorded 323 separate instances of ill health over a five months period, 83.6 percent of which were associated with pesticide poisoning. ISIS has reported from India on the benefits of organic farming for rural communities [5] ( Organic Cotton Beats Bt Cotton in India , SiS 27 ).

There is a chronic lack of protective apparatus, poor labelling of pesticides and inadequate safeguards to protect farm workers and their families in developing countries. Cotton workers are often so poor they are forced to store pesticides within their homes, improvise with their own utensils to apply chemicals to cotton and to re-use the empty pesticide canisters as water vessels. A case study in a return to natural and organic practices demonstrates how to avoid the dangers and environmental damage resulting from conventional farming [6] ( Stem Farmers' Suicides with Organic Farming , SiS 32 )

West African cotton farmers dependent on pesticides

Over ten million people are dependent on cotton grown in French speaking Benin and Mali [4]. There, resourceful farmers produce their cotton crops by relying entirely on rainwater. But farmers are dependent on privatised cotton companies that control the infrastructure of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides supplied to them on credit. Because farmers are also dependant for collection of their unsubsidised harvest they must adhere to a pesticides spraying regime of at least 6-10 chemical sprays per season.

By 1999 , the cotton pests had become resistant to the commonly used pesticides , so a research company attached to the French Government recommended that endosulfan be used for the first two sprays of each season [3]. Shortly after that, the authorities reported the deaths of 37 people within farming communities and a further 36 with serious health problems. These complaints were followed up by an NGO , the Organization Beninoise pour la Promotion de l'Agriculture Biologique , which confirmed 24 fatalities and estimated a further 70 deaths in cotton areas. T he independent investigations were continued for a further two spraying seasons; 577 chemical poisonings and 97 deaths were recorded between 2000-2003 , of which 69 percent were attributable to endosulfan.

Organic cotton better for African farmers than GM

There is hope for African cotton farmers in growing organic cotton [4], as many African countries are fighting to remain GM-free under intense pressure [7] ( Zambia Holding Firm to GM Ban Amid Aggressive GM Awareness Campaign , SiS 28 ) Currently Mali produces 1 500 tonnes of organic cotton. Retail giant Marks and Spencer is buying much of this under fair trade and demand outstrips supply. However, the difficulty with mainstreaming organic cotton in Mali is that the soil fertility has declined through conventional cotton farming and the methods to improve the soil such as composting, green manure, and cattle dung requires land.

Monsanto has pushed aggressively into neighbouring Burkino Faso where trials of B t cotton are underway [4]. If GM cotton gets a foothold in West Africa it will be harder to establish an effective organic production system. A citizen's jury of farmers to consider GM cotton met with representatives of government, NGOs, research and others farmers who have been growing Bt cotton in South Africa [3]. The jury unanimously voted to ban GM cotton in favour of improving traditional varieties, low input agriculture and local seed varieties. Other benefits for organic cotton farmers are lower costs, higher prices for harvests and reduced health problems.

Uzbekistan – State enforced cotton slavery

In Uzbekistan the use of chemicals in cotton production has gone overboard [8]. It is estimated the between 20kg and 90kg of pesticide is used per hectare of cotton. This has contaminated 90 percent of the land and groundwater at 100-150metres with DDT and lindane. The state forces children, teachers and doctors away from their desks to spray pesticides and harvest cotton in the fields. Children are often beaten and underpaid for their efforts. Studies on children in rural areas reveal a litany of diseases linked to environmental heath problems and toxicology such as immunodeficiency , chronic renal and lung disease, developmental retardation, and hypothyroidism. Downstream of cotton plantations , a NATO study recorded DNA mutations 3.5 higher than normal , rendering populations vulnerable to cancers.

The Aral Sea has been drained of water for cotton irrigation that has decimated ecosystems and traditional livelihoods. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, an estimated 43 million tonnes of pesticide-laden dust is blown throughout Central Asia every year from the dried up seabed and contaminated soils. The region suffers the highest incidence of throat cancers in the world.

Choosing the right cotton

The reports by the EJF and PAN [3] [8] underline the urgency of changing the ways cotton is farmed and purchased. I asked Katherine Hamnett what else could be don e . “ I would like to see a ban on cotton from Uzbekistan, cotton should be organic, and the cotton subsidies in USA, EU, and China should be stopped,” she said, “It's not about choosing something else, it's about choosing the right cotton.”

Article first published 15/03/07


  1. Ho MW. GM food nightmare unfolding and the regulatory sham . Science in Society 33 , 32-35, 2007.
  2. Gala R. GM cotton fiascos around the world. Science in Society 25 , 26-27, 2005.
  3. EJF 2007.The Deadly Cost of Chemicals in Cotton. The Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with the Pesticide Action Network. ISBN 1-904523-10-2
  4. Toulmin C. From harvest to high street. Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture Pesticides News 2006 74:12-16.
  5. Gala R. Organic cotton beats Bt cotton in India. Science in Society 27 , 49-50, 2005.
  6. Burcher S. Stem farmer's suicides with organic farming. Science in Society 32 , 42-32, 48. 2006.
  7. Ho. M.W. Zambia holding firm to GM ban amid aggressive awareness campaign. Science in Society 28 , 25, 2005.
  8. EJF 2005 White Gold: the true cost of cotton. 1-904523-08-0

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