Cotton – the World’s Dirtiest Crop? Essay

Take a short drive through any rural area of Pinal County and it’s easy to see that cotton is one of the most widely grown crops in the area. Arizona’s hot, dry climate is ideal for growing plentiful, white cotton, and Pinal County has the highest number of production acres in the state; in fact it is one of the most highly-producing cotton production areas in the US. Known as ‘white gold’, the genes of Arizona’s cotton go back to varieties grown in Arizona and Mexico hundreds of years ago, and the earliest evidence of cotton production can be traced as far back as the Hohokam people who migrated to Arizona from Northern Mexico.

The Hohokam lived along the major rivers in central Arizona, and this access to water enabled them to flood irrigate their small fields using a system of irrigation canals. The cotton crop grown by the Hohokam was quite different from today’s cotton. Unlike our dense, fluffy cotton bolls, Hohokam cotton was a scrubbier bush with sparse lint growing from the seedpod, and was parched and used in food, as well as being used for fiber. In fact, the current era of super-farming, with six-row cotton pickers and international product marketing, bears little resemblance to the origins of cotton farming.Since I live and work in Pinal County and drive past acres of cotton fields on the way to work, I decided to find out more about how this crop is grown, its impact on the environment, and why it is known as ‘the world’s dirtiest crop’. Cotton growing by the roadside in Eloy, Arizona At first glance, the clean, white fields of the cotton plant seem anything but ‘dirty’.

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Cotton has been popular for many years as a breathable, natural fiber and provides for 50 percent of the world’s fiber needs.It is a leading cash crop in the U. S. generating annual business revenue of over $120 billion. Only China produces more.

But cotton’s reputation has been declining by the decade as more is learned about its impact on the environment and the people who grow it. In fact, cotton crops lead the agricultural need for pesticides, with conventional cotton farming requiring $2. 6 billion worth of chemical pesticides each year. It is also responsible for 25 percent of global insecticide releases, more than any other single crop.In the US, it takes on average one third of a pound of agricultural chemicals to produce a single cotton T-shirt.

According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, the cultivation of cotton uses approximately 11 percent of the world’s pesticides, although it is grown on just 2. 4 percent of the world’s arable land. This high usage of chemicals has caused a disturbance in many ecosystems and health hazards around the world. Some of these chemicals are classified as toxic or carcinogenic by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In California, five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton are cancer-causing chemicals. In the developing world the situation is even worse, with 63 percent of all pesticides being used for controlling cotton pests, compared to 19 per cent used on rice, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables. The pesticides themselves are particularly deadly to third world workers. Aldicarb is classified by the World Health Organization as an extremely hazardous material and is used especially heavily in third world cotton production where they don’t have adequate legislation to protect workers against it.In Egypt, more than 50 percent of cotton workers in the 1990s suffered symptoms of chronic pesticide poisoning, and the World Health Organization estimates that at least three million people globally are poisoned by pesticides every year.

Of those 3 million, more than 10,000 people die annually and another 40,000 get sick, according to Forecast Earth. Those at highest risk are cotton pickers and farmers: some estimates suggest that a farmer in developing countries dies every hour from pesticide poisoning, and the number of cotton pickers getting sick may be as high as two million or more annually.Most cotton pickers in these developing countries are women, and are not educated in how toxic these pesticides are. Very few of them ever wear protective clothing, making the problem even worse. And it is not only the developing world that has these problems. The population in the region of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, has been hard hit by these hazardous chemicals. At least 1 million agricultural workers there need hospital treatment each year due to acute pesticide poisoning, with 99% of pregnant woman suffering from anemia and rates of throat cancer exceptionally high.

As well as being deadly for those involved in its cultivation, cotton production is also extremely bad for the land. Run-off from pesticides poisoning the soil is one such issue, but cotton production is also environmentally dangerous because it is such a thirsty crop. One example of cotton at its environmental worst would be the near death of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

In 1960, this was the fourth-largest lake on the planet. By 2007 it had shrunk to 10 percent of its original size and much of its demise can be blamed on irrigation for the cotton industry.Only about 27% of cotton in the area is rain-fed, the rest is taken from the Aral Sea and used for irrigating fields. As more and more water was used up for these crops, the salinity of the water and soil increased.

Desperate farmers applied more and more water to the fields which in turn made problems even worse. This led to infertile soils and huge areas of salty desert contaminated with pesticides. Some have claimed genetic modification of cotton seeds offers a means of reducing the need for pesticides, but this has also been very controversial.Bt cotton is cotton which has been genetically engineered with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bio-toxin which comes from soil bacterium. While spray applications of the Bt toxin is one of the most important insect management tools in certified organic production of many fruit and vegetable crops and is harmless to humans, vertebrates, and most beneficial insects, the genetically modified (GMO) cotton plant does not have such a good reputation. The engineered Bt gene produces a protein that cuts into the guts of specific insects, rendering the cotton resistant to these insects.

Agricultural giant Monsanto is the world’s leading producer of genetically modified seed, and Bt GMO cotton is one of its biggest products. According to one report from the Institute of Science in Society: “A recent scientific study carried out by Navdanya, compared the soil of fields where Bt-cotton had been planted for 3 years with adjoining fields with non GMO cotton or other crops. The region covered included Nagpur, Amravati and Wardha of Vidharbha which accounts for highest GMO cotton planting in India, and the highest rate of farmers’ suicides (4000 per year). Indebtedness is cited as one of the main reasons for this apparent leap in suicides, as Monsanto’s Bt cotton crops failed to deliver on their promises of increasing yield, increases in profits and decreases in pest infestation and the need for pesticides. From a long-term environmental viewpoint, the use of this Monsanto Bt cotton has been as devastating as the human cost. Fields planted with Monsanto’s Bt cotton have lost many of their vital soil enzymes which make nutrients available to plants.The soil, its fertility and the organisms which maintain the fertility have been on a steady decline since the Bt cotton was introduced. If nothing is done about this the land will be barren and unable to ever produce again.

Furthermore, the Bt cotton seeds did not control pests as claimed, and in fact created new, more pesticide-resistant pests. Some believe the company knew full well that this was possible, and indeed, Monsanto is now using this ‘failure’ to sell its second generation Bt crops with two Bt genes instead of one.Unfortunately, many of these third world farmland owners cannot just leave their lands to failure of inefficient technology and move on. For these trapped farmers and their workers, it means more exposure to lethal poisons, more cost to buy Monsanto’s new seeds and pesticides, and more enslaving debt. Monsanto is a very powerful company and has been accused of corrupt practices such as bribing officials and exploiting poorer nations with little political clout. The company and its Bt products have already been kicked out of Indonesia but have left a wake of destruction in their path.So far they have refused to help with any cleanup or compensate people who have fallen ill from the pesticides required to kill the super-pests created by Monsanto’s transgenic cotton. Another problem associated with third world cotton production is child labor.

Some of the worst abuses happen in India and children there are exploited on a daily basis. Many of these abuses can be traced to big international companies such as Bayer, Advanta BV, Emergent, Monsanto and Syngenta.These companies often create local subsidiaries or ‘joint ventures’ to try and cover up their activities, or throw off groups like the World Health Organization and EJF (Environmental Justice Foundation). When involved in the cultivation of conventional cotton, children are prone to the inhalation of pesticides such as Endosulphan, Methomyl, Cypermethrin, Monocrotophos, Nuvacran and Metasystox for up to 14 hours a day with little more that a handkerchief for protection. Health issues are rampant in these children, with actual deaths too.Other abuses of children unrelated to damaging pesticides occur in the production of cotton. These can include the children sleeping in congested sheds, low quality food to eat, waking up at 5a.

m. , being forced to work long hours in extreme conditions, sexual abuse and other forms of abuse. The MVF is working hard in India for the total abolition of child labor, but is facing a constant uphill battle. Most of the companies, their subsidiaries and the farmers involved have pledged their cooperation, but field studies conducted by the MVF have shown little or no progression whatsoever.

The MVF continues with its pledge to rid India of child labor and has joined up with international companies such as UNICEF. In the meantime, while the exploitation of children in the third world remains so commonplace, just choosing organic cotton is not always the answer. It is important for concerned consumers to research the clothing brands, support organic farming and fair trade. With so many negative aspects to the production of cotton, it is tempting to wonder whether a total boycott of the fiber and products made with it is necessary.Hemp is often touted as one cleaner, more responsible alternative. Hemp fibers are longer, stronger, more absorbent and more mildew-resistant than cotton, and fabrics made of at least one-half hemp block the sun’s UV rays more effectively than other fabrics. Hemp grows well in a variety of climates and soil types, is naturally resistant to most pests, getting rid of the need for pesticides, and grows tightly spaced, out-competing any weeds, so herbicides are not necessary.

It also leaves a weed-free field for a following crop.While the European Union subsidizes its farmers to grow industrial hemp, and hemp farming is also allowed in Canada, in the US the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made it effectively impossible to grow industrial hemp. Although Congress expressly expected the continued production of industrial hemp, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics lumped industrial hemp with marijuana, as its successor the US Drug Enforcement Administration, does to this day. In addition to hemp, organic cotton continues to grow in popularity and may present a viable green alternative to the dirty conventional crop.Global production of organic cotton increased 152 percent during the 2007-2008 crop year, according to the Organic Cotton Farm and Fiber Report 2008 released by the Organic Exchange. In the U.

S. the Organic Trade Association (OTA) claims that acreage for organic cotton increased by nine percent for the same time period. And, due to the public taking a keen interest in organic cottons, organic fiber linens and clothing sales went up by 26 percent in 2006.Organic agriculture on a whole has less exposure to toxic chemicals from synthetic pesticides and is less ‘dirty’ than non-organic cotton. The OTA states that, “Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. ” Organic cotton is grown to demanding standards as set out by the U. S.

National Organic Program, National Organic Standards Board, New Standards Development – GOTS, the OTA’s Organic Fiber Processing Standards and other international standards.Organic cotton is used in a variety of items such as sanitary products, make-up removal pads, cotton puffs and ear swabs, toys, towels, bathrobes, sheets, blankets, bedding, clothing and diapers. In addition, organic cottonseed is also used for animal feed and cooking oil. While organic cotton leads the way in cleaner cotton farming, some say even conventional cotton farming has made major improvements in recent years and that its ‘dirty’ image is inaccurate.Ed Barnes, Director of Agricultural Research with Cotton Incorporated, Cary, N.

C. , claims that the cottonseed in a bale of cotton contains more energy than the energy required producing the cotton and ginning the bale. He also claims that since cotton is grown on less than 3% of the world’s agricultural land and yields have increased over the last 30 years, this proves land use efficiency. According to Barnes, the US cotton industry “creates a positive environmental footprint worthy of bragging rights”.Furthermore, USDA Data from 2007 points out that foliar insecticide is not applied to one-third of the U. S.

cotton acreage, in part due to genetically modified crops which are somewhat insect resistant. Water usage is also decreasing with the introduction of drought-tolerant cotton varieties, optimized land usage ad better irrigation. A recent survey conducted by Cotton Incorporated and the Cotton Board indicated that around 80% of U. S. -grown cotton is rotated with other crops such as alfalfa, wheat, corn, vegetables, and orchard.Most naysayers are not aware of this fact about cotton crops and it is statistically important for the cotton industry to show that cotton crops are not of a monocultural nature. Pest management agent Brent Baugh would agree with some of Barnes’ comments.

According to Baugh, farmers have been working to lessen their impact on the environment for at least the at last five or six years and it has been “good for business. ” He argues that cotton farmers have been really focused on using fewer pesticides and, according to Baugh’s findings, insecticide applications have been cut in half.Baugh says that using too much pesticide turned out bad for crops as well as being an environmental hazard, with agricultural runoff accounting for 70% of environmental contamination. Crops have been stronger and are also being produced in record amounts, meaning not only higher profits but also a reduced impact on the planet.

In addition to fewer pesticides, Baugh noted that cotton farmers are also using more water-conscious methods for irrigation, as well as using less fuel to plant and harvest.Even big retail businesses are becoming involved in these improved farming techniques for cotton. The World Wildlife Fund and IKEA have been working together for the last few years to counter some of the negative effects on the environment and people’s health from cotton production, and have started a project in the in the Warangal district Indian state of Andhra Pradesh which is already showing great success. The project, which is already on the rise, covers 18 villages and involves around 600 cotton growers.The model used in this project is called Better Management Practices (BMP’s) and involves adapting cultivation methods to increase yields, minimizing environmental effects and achieving the best possible social conditions for farmers. The project’s tests have shown that growing maize and cotton close to each other is a way of reducing insect damage.

Also, the use of plant-based preparations such as those taken from the Neem tree, extract of Vitex and biological pesticides have had positive results, as has using “good” beetles that eat up the pests.This has cut down the average insecticide usage from spraying 20-30 times per season to only six to seven times per season. Farmers have also been able to invest in drip irrigation systems, cutting down on excessive water usage and treating the soil before sowing by plowing and applying compost and silt, which helps the soil to retain water. The results so far have been very encouraging and hopes are that this type of sustainable cotton farming will circumnavigate the globe soon. Cotton farming is not only becoming greener, scientists are also discovering new ways of using cotton that could have other benefits for the planet.

Keerti S. Rathore, a Texas A;M University researcher, has made an incredible breakthrough and has found a way to reduce toxins in cottonseed that until now were unfit for human consumption. Gossypol, which is found in cottonseeds, is the dangerous substance that prevents humans from eating it and drops blood potassium to dangerous levels, harming both the liver and heart. Rathore has found a way to shut off gossypol production in only the seeds, leaving stems, leaves, flowers and tissue protected.Previous researchers have had crops ravished by insects and disease when shutting of the gene that produces gossypol, but tests of the Rathore cottonseeds done in early 2009 at A;M showed stable growth and safe levels of gossypol. Rathore cottonseed is about 22 percent protein and could help many countries tackle the famine issues they have; the amount of cotton already grown worldwide contains enough protein to feed 500 million people per year, according to researchers.

Cotton farmers can also get more value for their crops which could offset higher prices for diesel fuel, fertilizer and electricity to run irrigation systems.These cottonseeds have met the standards of the WHO and the USFDA for food consumption but the seed still needs the approval of other agencies before it can become commercially available. Rathore expects the new seeds to show up in foods within the next 10 years, although the uses appear to be multifold and even may be as important as the discovery as penicillin one day. So, while it is widely acknowledged that cotton is a ‘dirty’ crop due to its heavy use of pesticides, the need for vast amounts of water and the ssociated exploitation of farmers, workers and children in developing countries, the picture is not black and white.

Some argue that, even though third world cotton farming techniques are exploitative, without this type of employment the workers would suffer even greater hardships. Child labor is cruel and even deadly, but helps feed families: it can even be a key cog in a system which ultimately provides a nation with more money, which in turn grants it greater political power and more likelihood of being able to negotiate with the more advanced, richer western nations.A few simple changes in pesticide handling and education could cut down on the environmental and human cost even more. According to Dr S. M.

Alam, it is poor planning, faulty management and ineffective control strategies over pesticide use in developing countries that leads to most of the huge crop losses each year, and much of the sickness that comes from pesticide exposure could be reduced by education and the right protective harvesting techniques.And, although cotton cultivation has historically been responsible for serious environmental destruction, with new techniques, consumer pressure and advances in science, it appears to be becoming greener by the day. Hopefully big business will continue to recognize the benefits of cleaner practices, organic farming and Fair Trade, as consumers become more educated and make their concerns known through better product choices. Although organic cotton has surged in popularity in recent years, it still only represents 0. 76 percent of total global cotton production.

It is easy for most of us in the U. S. o imagine the problems of cotton farming in the developing world don’t apply to us, as we buy our cheap cotton t-shirts, value pack diapers and ‘made in China’ cotton towels, but even here in Pinal County, the heavy use of pesticides on cotton is a concern. This was brought home to me last week when a friend of my wife’s canceled a lunch date as she was too ill to meet up. She and her three children had been sprayed by a crop sprayer driving along a dirt road in Casa Grande on the way to school at 8am.

All four of them were quite ill with allergy-like symptoms for at least a week, and she and one of her sons completely lost their voices.It is worrying to think that such potent chemicals are deployed in our environment with apparently few restrictions and no warnings for nearby residents, and I cannot help but think that if more people were aware of what was growing in their own ‘backyards’ they would feel differently about the cotton products they buy. Without continued financial pressure from consumers, and exposure by environmental groups, cotton’s ‘dirty’ side will remain one of the most urgent environmental and human issues of the next century.