Conventional cotton farming covers 2.4% of the world’s farmland and uses 25% of the world’s pesticides and 10% of the world’s synthetic fertilisers. Defoliants, fungicides and herbicides are also used in large quantities. These are either sprayed from the air, causing harm to neighbouring fields and people, or hand-sprayed with disastrous impacts on the health of farm workers. All of these pesticides are moderately hazardous, and some are classed as highly hazardous.
In the United States, 10,000 people die each year from cancer related to pesticides and farm workers have the highest rate of chemical related illness of any occupational group.
The pesticides destroy beneficial organisms which feed on insects harmful to the plant; over time, these insects develop a resistance to the pesticides so more toxic sprays need to be applied and more frequently, pushing up the production costs. For many cotton farmers the price of pesticides constitutes over 50% of the value of the crop and they find themselves faced with ever increasing debt.
In the Indian province of Andhra Pradesh, 80 cotton farmers committed suicide between June 1997 and January 1998 by drinking the pesticide which they were using on their cotton crop.
Farm land is poisoned so no other crops can be grown. This is especially significant in Africa, Asia and Latin America where food crops are essential to feed the local communities. Conventional cotton farming also requires large amounts of water often in areas where water is already in short supply. The contaminated water runs into the water system, polluting water supply.
As a direct result of cotton production, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, once the world’s fourth largest body of fresh water has lost 60% of its water in the last 30 years and is now too saline and polluted with pesticides to support fish.