Cotton and Pesticides

Cotton grows on 2.4% of the world’s arable land, yet it is responsible for the release of over US $2bn of chemical pesticides each year.

Nearly half of these are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation.

What are pesticides?

Pesticides are hazardous by design – these are chemicals manufactured with the aim of killing, repelling or inhibiting the growth of living organisms by impairing biological processes essential for the maintenance of life.

In many cases, pesticides not only affect the physiology of the pest species they are intended to control but also impact upon the well-being of humans and biodiversity. This phenomenon is particularly associated with insecticides, which accounts for almost 60% of all agrochemicals applied to cotton worldwide.

In total, the world’s cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide releases by market share: far more than is applied to any other single crop worldwide.

Pesticide poisoning

Across all agricultural sectors, an estimated 1 to 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in 20,000 reported deaths among agricultural workers and at least 1 million requiring hospitalisation.

Acute symptoms of pesticide poisoning include headaches, vomiting, tremors, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing or respiratory depression, loss of consciousness, seizures and death. Chronic effects of long-term pesticide exposure include impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depression and confusion.

While developing countries account for less than 30% of global pesticide consumption, the bulk of pesticide poisonings occur in a developing world scenario, including an estimated 99% of pesticide-induced deaths.

Between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide (not just those engaged in the cotton sector) suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. No specific figures are available for pesticide poisoning in relation to cotton production per se, but in developing countries it has been estimated that approximately 50% of all pesticides are applied in cotton cultivation.

In India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for 54% of all pesticides used annually, despite occupying just 5% of land under crops.

Children and pesticides

Despite being particularly vulnerable to poisoning, child labourers throughout the world risk exposure to hazardous pesticides through participation in cotton production. Children are also often the first victims of pesticide poisoning, even if they do not participate in spraying, due to the proximity of their homes to cotton fields or because of the reuse of empty pesticide containers.

Polluting valuable freshwater

Hazardous pesticides associated with global cotton production also represent a substantial threat to global freshwater resources. Hazardous cotton pesticides are known to contaminate rivers in the US, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa.

Named and shamed: pesticides commonly used in cotton

Aldicarb, a powerful nerve agent, is one of the most toxic pesticides applied to cotton worldwide and the second most used pesticide in global cotton production. Just one drop of aldicarb, absorbed through the skin, is enough to kill an adult.

Monocrotophos, despite being withdrawn from the US market in 1989, is still widely used in developing world countries. In 1997, Paraguay’s Ministry of Health and Welfare identified it as being responsible for causing paralysis in children living in cotton growing areas.

Deltamethrin is a nerve agent applied in over half of the cotton producing countries. Medical analysis in a community in a South African village located on the edge of a major cotton production area found traces of deltamethrin in human breast milk.



Watch EJF's film: What's Your Poison

Read EJF's reports: Death in Small Doses / The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton / What's Your Poison / End of the Road for Endosulfan