Q&A ON THE
PERILS OF COTTON
Q. Most agricultural crops use insecticides. What's the big deal about cotton?
A. According to the FAO and the USDA, more insecticides are used on cotton than on any other crop. In fact, cotton uses 24% of all insecticides applied globally - that's 495 million pounds each year. Closer to home, cotton consumes 60% of all insecticides applied in the USA - or 60 million pounds each year! (sources: FAO and USDA)
Q. Cotton's proportion of insecticide use is similar to other crops isn't it?
A. No. Cotton covers 2.4% of the world's farmland, but uses 24% of the world's insecticides.* This gives you some idea of how intensely these toxic chemicals are applied to cotton crops. (source: *World Wildlife Federation)
Q. OK, but these insecticides are safe aren't they?
A. No. They are some of the most toxic and persistent chemicals we put into the environment. According to Will Allen of the Sustainable Cotton Project, "Of the top 15 chemicals used in California cotton farming, 7 of them cause cancer and all but 1 cause birth defects." (source: Sustainable Cotton Project)
Q. Cotton pesticides, like all agricultural pesticides are carefully regulated aren't they?
A. The USDA has banned the use of many organophosphate pesticides on food crops because of their high toxicity and link to cancers, reproductive and neurological disorders, but they are still widely used in cotton farming. Cotton by-products, such as cotton seed and husks, are consumed in large quantities by domestic dairy cattle and so these same toxic pesticides find their way into our bodies on a nearly daily basis. (sources: PANNA & USDA)
Q. But pesticides give us economic benefits through increased yields, don't they?
A. Ah, the "pesticide treadmill". Pesticide effectiveness is short-lived because pests quickly develop resistance, so you need to apply more pesticides, more frequently until they have little or no effect.* The small gains in yield are quickly replaced by big increases in production costs and the pesticide manufacturers don't even acknowledge the increased costs to all of us for health care**, lost productivity from illness or environmental clean-up. (sources: *Union of Concerned Scientists; **USDA)
Q. How about Genetically Engineered (GE) cotton?
A. About 70% of all cotton crops in the USA are genetically engineered (GE) with the Bt toxin gene.* The hazards of GE cotton include indiscriminate toxicity to all insects - even the beneficial ones**; alergic reactions in humans; and the questionable ethical issue of replacing biodiversity with a patented organism. (sources: *Council for Biotechnology Information; **Union of Concerned Scientists)
Q. What if we replaced conventional and GE cotton farming with true-blue organic cotton?
A. Even organic cotton farming has major environmental impacts. Cotton requires 29,000 litres of fresh water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton lint, making it the most fresh water intensive crop in the world.* The flood irrigation method used on cotton lays waste to huge areas of farm land through increased salinity. The thirsty state of California is now offering farmers tax incentives to wean them off of cotton as a water conservation measure. (source: *World Wildlife Federation)
Q. If cotton has such relatively low yield in relation to the water, fertilizers and pesticides it requires, why is it such a common fibre?
A. Part of the reason is the huge infrastructure in place that perpetuates it. The agricultural pesticide industry is worth US$ 40 billion annually, of which 25% goes on cotton crops*. Cotton in the USA alone generates US$25 billion annually and employs 400,000 people**. These kind of numbers are big business and help to explain why there is such resistance to change the status quo. (sources: *FAO and the US EPA; **USDA)
We intentionally release 5 to 6 billion pounds of toxic pesticides into the environment each year.* Time is running out, but change is possible. Take the initiative whenever you can; vote with your wallets; make the conscious decision to choose healthier alternatives; buy organic; write to your government representative; question false economics and think about the big picture. We have a lot to lose if we fail to act, but much to gain if we affect change now. (source: WWF)
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