The research reviews pesticide use in global cotton production

The research reviews pesticide use in global cotton production

A number of high profile initiatives have been launched to tackle pesticide use in cotton farming – but a new investigation suggests the decline has not been as substantial as some believe.

Released today (11 October) at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in Washington DC, 'Is cotton conquering its chemical addiction?' investigates the current rate of pesticide use in cotton, and examines its trends and patterns of use.

Produced by by PAN UK, with support from the C&A Foundation, the report argues the debate on pesticide use in cotton in recent years has been severely distorted by the use of figures that are out of date and inaccurate.

On top of this, reliable data on global pesticide use in cotton is not readily available and is spread across multiple sources with different approaches to data collection.

Nevertheless, the authors have managed to take a detailed look at six countries and regions who between them account for around four-fifths of the world's cotton production: Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and the United States.

Drawing on figures from multiple sources, including the Agricultural Outlook 2016-2017 database compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the research identifies that many highly hazardous pesticides are still used in cotton production.

In some regions, the conditions under which pesticides are used continue to give rise to pesticide exposure and poisoning incidents. This is particularly true in smallholder cotton production.

Pesticide use patterns have changed as many of the older, more toxic pesticides have been replaced by newer, more selective chemicals

What is also true is that pesticide use patterns have changed over the past few years as many of the older, more toxic pesticides – such as endosulfan – have been banned and replaced by newer, more selective chemicals.

Pests have also adapted to the new transgenic GM environment, and in some cases require the pattern of insecticide use to be adapted.

For example, the introduction of Bt cotton – cotton genetically modified to be toxic to certain cotton pests – in the early part of the century was followed by a dip in insecticide use. But this reduction has not been sustained in many countries due to a surge in "secondary" pests like aphids, thrips and jassids, which have become a serious threat to cotton productivity.

Case studies also show that poor practices continue to exist in cotton production. Personal protective equipment is not widely used and, in some instances, children apply pesticides. Re-use of empty pesticide containers is a major route of exposure. Occupational poisoning levels are high, with as many as 42% of farmers reporting signs and symptoms of pesticide poisoning.

"This report shines a light on pesticide use in cotton farming," says Keith Tyrell, director of Pesticide Action Network UK.

"The good news is that pesticide use has declined since the record highs of the 1980s, but cotton is still one of the heaviest users of pesticides is the world and, worryingly, use is on the rise again in many of the big cotton-producing countries. Much more remains to be done."

A number of high profile initiatives have been launched to tackle many of the problems in cotton farming.

There has been a dramatic increase in the coverage of sustainability standards such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Fairtrade and Organic, which restrict the use of some highly hazardous pesticides and promote farming practices to reduce reliance on pesticides. They now reach over 1.7m farmers and cover 3.7m hectares.

However, Tyrell adds: "What is clear from this report is that the promised reductions in pesticide use from genetically modified cotton are often illusory and short-lived.

"Poor resistance management and new pests are driving big increases in insecticide use in India, China and Brazil. While the introduction of herbicide-tolerant GM varieties has seen a massive increase in herbicide use in some countries like the US."

Countries like Australia have embraced Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and are among those who have been most successful at cutting pesticide use – and keeping it low.

Turkey has also diverged from other major cotton producing countries by rejecting GM cotton and focusing on IPM. Turkish yields have doubled since the 1980s to some 1700 kg/ha – approximately double the global average – yet pesticide use remains low.

Click on the following link to download the report: Is cotton conquering its chemical addiction?

A separate report released at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference has found that more sustainable cotton production is now successfully replacing genetically modified (GM) cotton in India.

Organic replacing GM cotton production in India