The Environmental Impact of Cotton Production: A
Aside from things we grow to feed ourselves, one of our most intensively farmed crops is the humble cotton plant, producing around 25 million tonnes of cotton every single year. Production of cotton is limited to a few big producers, with China, Brazil, India, Organic Cotton Tshirts and Sweatshrits Pakistan, Uzbekistan and the USA accounting for over 80% of the total production.
China alone produces around 4.3 million tonnes of cotton each year, and has the highest number of cotton growers in the world. Despite this high native production, China does not produce enough cotton to be self-sufficient, and still has to import around 418 thousand tonnes each year to meet the demand of the fashion and fabric industries in the country.
Across the globe, cotton plantations occupy over 2.5% of the arable land area available, making this one of the most widely grown crops in the world. But what are the environmental impacts of growing cotton, and how can we make sure our fashion choices are not destroying our planet?
The Environmental Impacts
The use of pesticides in cotton farming has, over the years, had a major impact on the environment as well as the health of the people who work on the farms. Cotton producers worldwide use almost £1.8 billion of pest control chemicals every year, which accounts for 10% of the world’s pesticides and around 25% of the world’s insecticides.
The types of pesticides used in cotton farming are among the most dangerous in the world, and many are broad spectrum organophosphates which were originally developed as toxic nerve agents during the Second World War. Many of the chemicals in use in developing countries today have been classified as ‘highly hazardous’ and banned from use in the West.
Asia in particular saw a spike in the use of dangerous pesticides with the introduction of modified crop varieties, mainly because these fast growing, high yield plants were more susceptible to pests than traditional cultivars. As pests developed a resistance to the chemicals used, so the farmers increased the use of them, until a peak in the late 1990’s when the use of insecticides in some Asian countries counted for around 40% of the production costs of cotton.
The dangers of pesticides are not purely limited to the immediate environment. Because rain causes chemicals to run off from the crop fields and enter the water system, numerous complications can arise. These can include damage to the local and extended eco system, limited local biodiversity, damage to wildlife in rivers and neighbouring biomes and even contamination of meat and milk products from animals that reside nearby.
Thankfully worldwide education programmes and alternative strategies are slowly making their way into cotton production systems. Farmers can see the benefits of reducing pesticide use, if only for the increase in profits available from their harvests, and through a programme delivered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, awareness of other methods of pest control is being raised worldwide.
As well as dangerous pesticides, many cotton farmers use powerful herbicides and defoliants to speed up and simplify the harvesting process. Defoliants strip leaves from the plants, leaving just the cotton bud and stem, reducing the amount of leaf litter that gets mixed in with the raw cotton. As well as this, herbicides and fungicides may be used during the growing process to protect the cotton plant from weeds and fungi, adding to the chemical soup that cotton production is responsible for.
It takes around 150g of synthetic fertilisers to grow just 500g of raw cotton. To put this in perspective, it takes around 500g of raw cotton to make one t-shirt, so you can imagine the amount of synthetic fertiliser that is entering the environment as a result of the cotton industry.
The majority of fertilisers used in cotton production worldwide are nitrogenous synthetic fertilisers, which are considered to be the most detrimental in terms of environmental impact. These fertilisers leach from the cotton fields and run off into water systems, where they can cause problems such as contamination of river environments and harmful algal blooms.