Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides are sprayed on cotton fields each year — accounting for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticides use worldwide.
In the U.S. and around the world, pesticides used on cotton — even when used according to label instructions — harm people, wildlife and the environment. Many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market, including broad spectrum organophosphates and carbamate pesticides, are sprayed on cotton fields.
Our partners at PAN-UK have been documenting these harms for years, and working with PAN Africa and local organizations in East and West Africa to promote safe and sustainable cotton production and markets.
Farmers & Farmworkers at Risk
In a 2002 study of pesticide illnesses in California, cotton ranked third among California crops for total number of worker illnesses caused by pesticides.
These numbers do not account for "bystander" events such as a 1996 incident in which an estimated 250 farmworkers were sprayed with a mixture of highly toxic pesticides. The mixture was being applied to a cotton field by a crop dusting plane, and dozens of workers in an adjacent field harvesting grapes, experienced symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning.
In 2010, PAN International conducted on-the-ground surveys of pesticide applications methods, illness and accidents in 13 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The resulting report, Communities in Peril, interviewed over 2200 individuals and found that those who applied pesticides in these countries could neither "find nor afford" adequate protective equipment.
These findings are confirmed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which notes that farmers and farmworkers in developing countries often use antiquated and dangerous pesticide application equipment, resulting in inadequate protection, spills and poisonings.
Problems with applications to cotton are particularly severe:
- 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.
Collateral Damage: Animals, Wild & Domestic
Documented cases of animals harmed by pesticides applied to cotton fields are many and varied. For example:
- Fish in Alabama: 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.
- Australian Livestock: Australian beef was found to be contaminated with the cotton insecticide Helix® (chlorfluazuron) in 1994, 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 passed through their mother's milk.
- Birds in Texas: 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 perished.
Crop & Ecosystem Failures
The cotton boll weevil has reportedly 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 crop failures.
Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas lost $150 million worth of cotton in 1995 due to an extensive malathion spraying campaign. The spraying destroyed not only boll weevils, but spiders, wasps and other beneficial insects, allowing beet army worms and aphids to flourish as never before. One Texas cotton gin operator reported ginning only 354 bales of cotton, after contracting for 12,500. Similar problems occurred in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, where eradication programs were also tried.
In Nicaragua, cotton was grown on 463,000 hectares (more than a million acres) at the height of the cotton boom in the late 1970s. Massive quantities of insecticides were used, leading several previously minor pests to become major problems as beneficial insects were eliminated. Insect resistance weakened the efficacy of many pesticides, and in response, farmers applied so many chemicals that by the late 1980s pesticides accounted for approximately 50% of production costs — making cotton production a losing proposition for most farmers.
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 — well below the $141 million in cotton income logged at the peak of Nicaragua’s cotton boom.
Supporting Safe & Healthy Cotton
In addition to promoting safe and sustainable cotton production and markets in Africa, our partners at PAN-UK and PAN Africa are working to raise awareness of the harms of conventional cotton production among retailers and consumers. To learn more and see what you can do — as a consumer and a concerned citizen — visit the PAN-UK cotton resources page.