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[SANET-MG] use organic cotton
ISIS Press Release 15/03/07
Picking Cotton Carefully
Cotton is known as “white gold” in some parts of the world. But the
price in pesticides poisonings and the decimation of ecosystems is too
high to pay. Only a return to organic cotton farming will turn the tide.
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Fashion leader backs organic cotton
Designer Katherine Hamnett d id something very different at London
Fashion Week this year. Instead of showcasing her latest ready to wear
clothes she featured a report and a film by the Environmental Justice
Foundation (EJF) in collaboration with the Pesticides Action Network
(PAN ), exposing the human health and environmental cost of pesticide
use in global cotton production.
Hamnett is famous for inspiring a fashion campaign for bold,
life-affirming slogans printed onto cotton t-shirts during the 1980s.
Nearly thirty years later, her collections are still highly prestigious.
But now, she is doing everything in her power to support organic cotton
farmers, and produces her unique t-shirts only on certified organic
cotton, and her latest slogan “Save the Future” is a testament to her
At the Museum of Natural History, which hosted this year's event , I
asked h ow she felt about GM cotton. “I'm terrified of it,” she replied.
“Bt cotton is of no benefit to farmers and has been a massive failure.
Monsanto should be broken up! They have taken GM cotton to the scale of
genocide in countries like India, and created devastation on all levels.”
ISIS shares her concerns about Bt toxins in GM crops ( GM Food
Nightmare Unfolding and the Regulatory Sham SiS 33 ). We have also
thoroughly documented the failures of GM cotton worldwide  ( GM
Cotton Fiascos Around the World , SiS 25 ) The EJF and PAN joint report
 on the deadly chemicals used in non-organic cotton is another da mni
ng indictment of the agrochemical industry, and a wake-up call to the
fashion industry and consumers to demand organic cotton across the board.
Potted history of chemical-free cotton
For over 5 000 years, global cotton production has occurred without the
aid of hazardous agrochemicals. Cotton was planted at low densities and
rotated with other crops to ensure the health of the soil. Pest cycles
were taken into consideration before planting and harvesting. Things
changed after World War II with the advent of neurotoxins such as DDT
that were considered to be a cheaper way of controlling pests than
strategic crop management and agricultural labourers. The recent new
wave of GM cotton represents 30 percent of the global cotton and
estimated to reach 50 percent by 2010 . Today, only 0.15 percent of
the world's cotton is guaranteed to be free of pesticide, and organic.
In fact, cotton accounts for 16 percent of global chemical pesticide
use, more than any other single crop , and reaps US$2 billion for the
chemical industry every year . Of that , US$112 million is spent on
Aldicarb, an acutely toxic pesticide classified by as “WHO1a” by the WHO
, or “extremely hazardous.” One drop is sufficient to kill an adult male
. Yet one million kilos of Aldicarb was applied to cotton crops in the
USA in 2003. At least 1 million agricultural workers around the world
are hospitalised because of acute pesticide poisoning each year.
Polluted food chain and water supplies
Cotton is noted as the biggest and most important “non-food”
agricultural crop in the world yielding 21.8 million tonnes per year.
But some 34 million tonnes of high protein cottonseed is also produced
for food and feed annually. Around 24 million tonnes of whole
cottonseed, cottonseed husks and meal is used in animal feed, and can
make up a quarter of a dairy herds' total nutrition. A further 3.1
million tonnes of cottonseed oil is used for cooking by 8 percent of the
world's population. In some areas as much of 65 percent of the cotton
harvest can enter the food chain. The FAO and WHO recognise that the
chemical pesticides applied to cotton can contaminate cottonseed and its
derivatives. While several other studies have shown that cottonseed is a
“significant pathway by which hazardous pesticides applied to cotton may
enter the human food chain.” Therefore, Monsanto has deliberately misled
regulators by stating that Bt cotton is not used for food.
Cotton is grown mainly in China, USA, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan,
Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa. Numerous studies have
documented detectable levels of lindane and endosulfan, (both
organochlorines known for adverse health and environmental impacts) in
local water resources in these areas. In India, over 3 000 tonnes of
endosulfan is applied to cotton crops annually. In Brazil, samples were
taken from streams, rivers and surface water in the Mato Grosso cotton
state, of which 80 percent were contaminated by endosulfan. In Ghana's
Lake Volta lindane was present in 22.7 percent of samples and endosulfan
present in 18 percent. In the US, an organophosphate called dicrotophos
used extensively in cotton growing was detected in some 35 percent of
Children and workers at risk
The worst affected by pesticides are the developing countries, where 99
percent of cotton production takes place. The WHO report three million
pesticide poisoning per year and 20 000 unintentional deaths largely in
developing countries among the rural poor . Human causalities are
unsurprising as pesticides are designed to inhibit the growth of
organisms by impairing biological processes necessary to life. Symptoms
of acute pesticide poisoning include vomiting, skin rashes, headaches,
tremors, respiratory problems, muscle cramps, blurred vision, lack of
co-ordination, seizures and death.
India has 8.3 million hectares under cotton, the largest area in the
world. Despite using only 5 percent of land area, cotton accounts for 55
percent of the annual total of US$355 million spent on pesticides. A
staggering US$255 million is spent just on controlling the bollworm
cotton pest every year . Children of farm workers are particularly
vulnerable to agrochemical exposure as they play or help in the fields
. A 2003 study in India compared 899 children living in cotton
regions with those where few agricultural pesticides were in use. The
results showed that children living in cotton producing areas performed
significantly worse in tests assessing mental ability, cognitive skills,
concentration, balance and co-ordination. A 2005 study in three
different villages all farming cotton recorded 323 separate instances of
ill health over a five months period, 83.6 percent of which were
associated with pesticide poisoning. ISIS has reported from India on the
benefits of organic farming for rural communities  ( Organic Cotton
Beats Bt Cotton in India , SiS 27 ).
There is a chronic lack of protective apparatus, poor labelling of
pesticides and inadequate safeguards to protect farm workers and their
families in developing countries. Cotton workers are often so poor they
are forced to store pesticides within their homes, improvise with their
own utensils to apply chemicals to cotton and to re-use the empty
pesticide canisters as water vessels. A case study in a return to
natural and organic practices demonstrates how to avoid the dangers and
environmental damage resulting from conventional farming  ( Stem
Farmers' Suicides with Organic Farming , SiS 32 )
West African cotton farmers dependent on pesticides
Over ten million people are dependent on cotton grown in French speaking
Benin and Mali . There, resourceful farmers produce their cotton
crops by relying entirely on rainwater. But farmers are dependent on
privatised cotton companies that control the infrastructure of seeds,
fertilisers and pesticides supplied to them on credit. Because farmers
are also dependant for collection of their unsubsidised harvest they
must adhere to a pesticides spraying regime of at least 6-10 chemical
sprays per season.
By 1999 , the cotton pests had become resistant to the commonly used
pesticides , so a research company attached to the French Government
recommended that endosulfan be used for the first two sprays of each
season . Shortly after that, the authorities reported the deaths of
37 people within farming communities and a further 36 with serious
health problems. These complaints were followed up by an NGO , the
Organization Beninoise pour la Promotion de l'Agriculture Biologique ,
which confirmed 24 fatalities and estimated a further 70 deaths in
cotton areas. T he independent investigations were continued for a
further two spraying seasons; 577 chemical poisonings and 97 deaths were
recorded between 2000-2003 , of which 69 percent were attributable to
Organic cotton better for African farmers than GM
There is hope for African cotton farmers in growing organic cotton ,
as many African countries are fighting to remain GM-free under intense
pressure  ( Zambia Holding Firm to GM Ban Amid Aggressive GM
Awareness Campaign , SiS 28 ) Currently Mali produces 1 500 tonnes of
organic cotton. Retail giant Marks and Spencer is buying much of this
under fair trade and demand outstrips supply. However, the difficulty
with mainstreaming organic cotton in Mali is that the soil fertility has
declined through conventional cotton farming and the methods to improve
the soil such as composting, green manure, and cattle dung requires land.
Monsanto has pushed aggressively into neighbouring Burkino Faso where
trials of B t cotton are underway . If GM cotton gets a foothold in
West Africa it will be harder to establish an effective organic
production system. A citizen's jury of farmers to consider GM cotton met
with representatives of government, NGOs, research and others farmers
who have been growing Bt cotton in South Africa . The jury
unanimously voted to ban GM cotton in favour of improving traditional
varieties, low input agriculture and local seed varieties. Other
benefits for organic cotton farmers are lower costs, higher prices for
harvests and reduced health problems.
Uzbekistan – State enforced cotton slavery
In Uzbekistan the use of chemicals in cotton production has gone
overboard . It is estimated the between 20kg and 90kg of pesticide is
used per hectare of cotton. This has contaminated 90 percent of the land
and groundwater at 100-150metres with DDT and lindane. The state forces
children, teachers and doctors away from their desks to spray pesticides
and harvest cotton in the fields. Children are often beaten and
underpaid for their efforts. Studies on children in rural areas reveal a
litany of diseases linked to environmental heath problems and toxicology
such as immunodeficiency , chronic renal and lung disease, developmental
retardation, and hypothyroidism. Downstream of cotton plantations , a
NATO study recorded DNA mutations 3.5 higher than normal , rendering
populations vulnerable to cancers.
The Aral Sea has been drained of water for cotton irrigation that has
decimated ecosystems and traditional livelihoods. According to Medecins
Sans Frontieres, an estimated 43 million tonnes of pesticide-laden dust
is blown throughout Central Asia every year from the dried up seabed and
contaminated soils. The region suffers the highest incidence of throat
cancers in the world.
Choosing the right cotton
The reports by the EJF and PAN   underline the urgency of changing
the ways cotton is farmed and purchased. I asked Katherine Hamnett what
else could be don e . “ I would like to see a ban on cotton from
Uzbekistan, cotton should be organic, and the cotton subsidies in USA,
EU, and China should be stopped,” she said, “It's not about choosing
something else, it's about choosing the right cotton.”
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