> Health & Safety

 

WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?

Pesticide use is a threat to the health of farmers, their families, and rural communities. It’s not
only the farmers at risk of exposure but others through the ingestion of food crops, spray drift,
and mistaking a pesticide solution for something else if not securely stored.
 
The circumstances leading to heavy dependency on some of agriculture’s most toxic chemicals (some of them banned in developed countries) by the world’s poorest, often illiterate farmers makes conventional cotton farming a moral issue as well as a health and safety one.
 
According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), mainstream cotton production consumes around 11 percent of the world’s agrochemicals (including pesticides, fertilisers, defoliants etc). Cotton covers 2.5 percent of the world’s cultivated land yet uses over 15 percent of the world’s insecticides (i.e. the chemicals targeting bugs), more than any other single major crop (ICAC). And official statistics suggest it’s getting worse... From around 500,000 incidents of pesticide poisoning and 5,000 fatalities in the1970s to 5 million incidents and more than 200,000 fatalities occurring every year, most of them in developing countries (PAN, 2005). It is safe to assume that many of them are cotton farmers.
 
Further, many health experts consider these figures a huge underestimate since only a tiny proportion of cases are actually reported and enter the official statistics on which the estimates are based. Genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds have been produced with the objective of reducing the need for pesticides. However, some studies are showing that over time the ability of the GM crop to ward off pests is reducing (see Cotton Briefings, Textile Exchange) and pesticide use is maintained, or even on the increase.
 
Organic production relies on natural, biological and physical or manual techniques for pest control, soil health, and for meeting other agronomic requirements. Toxic and persistent chemicals are excluded. Organic cotton production requires special skills and knowledge to be held by the farmer, and a higher degree of manual labour to be carried out (this is not necessarily a bad thing when unemployment, urban migration, and loss of agronomic skills are threatening rural communities).
 
Where chemical based techniques are risky and ‘lonely’; requiring an individual (usually a male) to be out spraying crops in isolation, organic field work calls on team effort and is reportedly more agreeable to women. Thus organic brings a gender balance to the farming profile and the economic decision-making within a household. Debt traps are not as common and there have been no reported suicides.
 
Knowledge intensive, appropriate-level technology, and farming methods, are the objectives of organic agriculture, often combining the latest in scientific understanding with traditional and sometimes culturally-specific ways of farming.

WHO'S DOING WHAT?

Organic (including biodynamic) agriculture holds the key to eliminating pesticides from farming practices, people’s lives, and the environment. Experienced organic cotton producers hold vast amounts of knowledge and skills in pesticide-free production and how to work with local conditions to control pests. In addition, organisations such as Helvetas Intercooporation and Textile Exchange among others specialise in providing field advice to organic cotton growers.

One organisation leading in the area of reducing pesticide use through organic and integrated pest management is the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). One of PAN Germany’s current projects is advising farmers how to phase in alternatives to endosulfan(PAN). Endosulfan is an off-patent organochlorine insecticide that is being phased out globally. Endosulfan became a highly controversial agrichemical due to its acute toxicity, potential for bioaccumulation, and role as an endocrine disrupter. Because of its threats to human health and the environment, a global ban on the manufacture and use of endosulfan was negotiated under the Stockholm Convention in April 2011.

The ban will take effect in mid 2012. PAN reports the following successes among cotton growers: INDIA: While conventional cotton farmers use endosulfan to combat cotton bollworms and other pests, Indian organic farmers manage these with a non-chemical pest management system, based primarily on preventive measures. These include planting robust cotton varieties, maintaining a diverse crop rotation, intercropping with maize and pigeon peas as trap crops and with flowering plants like marigold and sunflowers to attract beneficial insects, and the use of ‘Trichocards’ containing eggs of the parasitic wasp Trichogramma. Trichogramma parasitizes the eggs of the bollworm moth, one of the key pests of cotton. In addition, Indian farmers prepare and apply repellents and botanical pesticides from plants that grow locally.

BENIN: Since 1996 a growing number of Beninese cotton farmers have proven that cotton can be grown without endosulfan. Training in alternative pest management strategies, integrating indigenous techniques, and the use of plant extracts and trap crops enable the farmers to successfully grow cotton without pesticides. There is now considerable experience in using a range of non-chemical strategies for pest management, including: encouraging natural predators; selection of resistant varieties; planting early maturing varieties which reduce the risk of pest attacks; use of rotation and trap crops; and the use of food sprays for predators to improve the balance between useful insects and pests. The use of food sprays has helped to manage caterpillar pests in general and Helicoverpa bollworm in particular, and has shown to be a useful tool to combat pests without using endosulfan. In Benin, the area under organic cotton grew from 500 hectares in 2003 to an estimated 1,800 hectares in 2008.

The production of seed cotton went up in the same period from 200 tonnes to more than 750 tonnes seed cotton and the number of organic cotton farmers rose from 500 in 2003 to 900 farmers in 2006/7. The organic cotton experience has convinced many farmers in the cotton sector in Benin and conventional farmers are now copying some of the organic pest management techniques, even if they do not adopt the entire strategy.

 

FURTHER READING

Pesticide Use in Cotton, The Expert Panel on Social, Environmental and Economic Performance of Cotton Production (SEEP), ICAC 2010 http://www.icac.org/seep/documents/reports/2010_interpretative_summary.pdf

Environmental Justice Foundation: Pesticides and Cotton http://www.ejfoundation.org/page332.html 

Plus their report ‘Deadly Chemicals In Cotton’ http://www.ejfoundation.org/pdf/the_deadly_chemicals_in_cotton.pdf

Pesticide Use in Cotton, The Expert Panel on Social, Environmental and Economic Performance of Cotton Production (SEEP), ICAC 2010http://www.icac.org/seep/documents/reports/2010_interpretative_summary.pdf

Phasing in alternatives to Endosulfan, PAN Germany: http://www.pangermany.org/download/phasing_in_alternatives_to_endosulfan.pdf