WHY ORGANIC COTTON
Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically dependent agriculture. Each year cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides -- more than 10% of the world's pesticides and nearly 25% of the world's insecticides.
Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market including aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan. Cotton pesticides are often broad spectrum organophosphates--pesticides originally developed as toxic nerve agents during World War II--and carbamate pesticides.
Pesticides used on cotton–even when used according to instructions–harm people, wildlife and the environment. These pesticides can poison farm workers, drift into neighboring communities, contaminate ground and surface water and kill beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms.
Farmers and Farmworkers
In many developing countries, farmers and farmworkers work in cotton fields with few if any safety precautions to protect them from pesticides. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, farmers in many developing countries use antiquated and dangerous pesticide application equipment, resulting in spills and poisonings. In Pakistan, one of the top five cotton producing countries, approximately 50% of applied pesticides are wasted due to poor spraying machinery and inappropriate application. A 1997 Danish television documentary showed methyl parathion being sprayed on cotton fields in Nicaragua and Guatemala while children played in and beside the fields. It also documented numerous cases of methyl parathion poisonings in cotton production. Pesticide poisoning remains a daily reality among agricultural workers in developing countries, where up to 14% of all occupational injuries in the agricultural sector and 10% of all fatal injuries can be attributed to pesticides.
Farmworkers are also threatened by hazardous pesticides in industrialized countries. In one study of pesticide illnesses in California, cotton ranked third among California crops for total number of worker illnesses caused by pesticides. In September 1996, approximately 250 farmworkers in California were accidentally sprayed with a mixture of highly toxic pesticides when a crop dusting plane applied the chemicals to a cotton field adjacent to a field where workers were harvesting grapes. Twenty-two workers were rushed to hospitals with symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning. According to the crop dusting company, the pilot was experienced and followed regulations. County officials stated that the chemicals are registered for use on cotton and that the duster was not required to notify workers in the grape field prior to spraying.
Wildlife & Domestic Animals
Fish killed by pesticide run-off: In 1995, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields killed at least 240,000 fish in Alabama. Shortly after farmers had applied pesticides containing endosulfan and methyl parathion to cotton fields, heavy rains washed them into the water. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries stated that there was no indication that the pesticides were applied in an illegal manner.
Livestock: Meat and milk contaminated by pesticide-laden cotton straw. In 1994, Australian beef was found to be contaminated with the cotton insecticide Helix® (chlorfluazuron), most likely because cattle had been fed contaminated cotton straw. In response, several countries suspended beef imports from Australia. One year later, farmers were alarmed to discover that newborn calves were also contaminated with Helix, apparently because it was passed through their mother's milk. In a similar case, 23 farms in New South Wales and Queensland were placed in quarantine after inspectors discovered high levels of endosulfan in beef cattle, possibly due to endosulfan spray drift contaminating grazing land. Since 1987, Australian beef exporters have lost millions of dollars due to concerns about chemical contamination.
Birds: It has been estimated that pesticides unintentionally kill at least 67 million birds in the U.S. each year, and it’s likely they kill many more. Estimates of bird kills from pesticides are notoriously low because many birds remain hidden in brush, are carried away by scavengers or die away from treated areas where they won’t be counted. In one case, a breeding colony of laughing gulls near Corpus Christi, Texas, was devastated when methyl parathion was applied to cotton three miles away. More than 100 dead adults were found and 25% of the colony’s chicks were killed.
Ecological Disasters & Crop Failure
Texas, U.S.A.: Massive pesticide spraying causes massive pest outbreaks. The boll weevil has been a major cotton pest longer and is reported to have caused greater cash losses than any other insect in the history of agriculture. Since the mid-twentieth century, there have been many attempts to eliminate boll weevils with synthetic pesticides, including DDT, toxaphene and methyl parathion. Many of these attempts have led to major ecosystem imbalances and resulting crop failures.
In 1995, farmers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas lost $150 million worth of cotton due to extensive malathion spraying that led to massive secondary pest outbreaks. The U.S. government recommended the spraying program as an attempt to eradicate boll weevils from the state, and the majority of farmers voted to go with the plan in 1994. The next year, malathion destroyed not only boll weevils, but spiders, wasps and other beneficial insects, allowing beet army worms and aphids to flourish as never before. One cotton gin operator ginned only 354 bales of cotton in 1995 after contracting for 12,500.
Similar problems have occurred in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, where the eradication program has also been tried. Farmers in eastern Mississippi voted to end the eradication program due to crop losses in 1995, and in 1996, Rio Grande Valley farmers voted three to one to end the boll weevil program.
Nicaragua: In the 1977/1978 season, at the height of Nicaragua’s cotton boom, cotton was grown on 463,000 hectares. But massive quantities of toxic insecticides were used in the process, leading to a range of new problems. Several previously minor pests became major problems as pesticides eliminated the beneficial insects that held them in check. In addition, insect resistance to pesticides seriously weakened the efficacy of many chemicals. In response, farmers applied so many chemicals that by the late 1980s pesticides accounted for approximately 50% of production costs. Besides making cotton production financially unviable, pesticides also introduced serious health and environmental problems, including farm worker poisonings, fish kills and deep well contamination. By 1990, Nicaragua’s cotton production had declined to 35,000 hectares, less than one fifth its previous level. One UN study estimated that the social and environmental costs of insecticide use in Nicaragua during the cotton boom approached $200 million per year (compared to $141 million in cotton income at the peak of Nicaragua’s cotton boom).
Uzbekistan: Cotton has left a severe scar on the once-fertile steppes of Uzbekistan, formerly a Soviet state. Early this century, government planners decided that the Soviet Union should be self-sufficient in cotton and began draining the Aral Sea to irrigate millions of acres for cotton production.
Uzbekistan eventually became the source of 90% of the Soviet Union’s cotton crop and remains one of the top five cotton producing countries worldwide. But the price of this production has been deadly. Intense pesticide use combined with poor irrigation practices have left fields barren, too contaminated with pesticides and salt to grow anything. Drinking water supplies over vast areas are dangerously polluted. In Kzyl-Orda, the largest city in the Aral region, there has been a frightening increase in childhood illnesses, including blood diseases and birth defects. Pesticide residues in women’s breast milk, first measured in 1975, are now detected with increasing frequency. In addition, water diversion has reduced the Aral Sea to 60% its original surface area–some 11,000 square miles once under water are now dry and saline, and villages once dependent on fishing are now stranded miles from the shore. Thanks to conventional cotton production, the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest body of fresh water, is too saline and polluted with pesticides to support fish.
Written by: PANNA: Pesticide Action Network North America
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