Cotton is the world’s favourite material. Cotton is the fabric that we turn to when we want a light, breathable, soft, comfortable garment; it’s the fabric we use for our bedding and sheets, and high thread-count cotton is a byword for luxury. The people of the world love cotton, but the costs of this love affair are proving to be a very high price to pay.
Below, we’ll look deeper into the consequences of the modern obsession with cotton, and the impact it is having on both the environment and the people that farm it. It’s a rather shocking tale and one that could well end our blissful relationship with cotton once and for all…
The environmental damage of cotton
Where there is agriculture, there is the risk of environmental damage— this has long been established. Sadly, the potential for environmental damage from the cotton industry has been demonstrably proven to be particularly catastrophic.
The primary reason for this is due to cotton itself. Cotton is particularly liable to fall victim to pests, which means that industrial solvents and pesticides are required to produce the kind of cotton yield that the world demands. Poor water management and irrigation in cotton fields have severe consequences on the land.
Here’s a look at some of the environmental damage that cotton has been linked with over the years:
- Evidence has shown that the pesticides used on cotton plans have a direct, toxic effect on wildlife. Over time, this has lead to a decrease in animal fertility.
- Pesticides in the USA have been proven to have a negative impact on freshwater ecosystems and have been linked to increased levels of fish mortality.
- It is not just pesticides that are harmful to the environment. The fertiliser required for good maintenance of cotton plants has been known to alter freshwater to the point that algae growth becomes uncontrollable, and which contributes to fish death.
The Australian impact
Cotton is grown throughout the world, and sadly, the industry uses more insecticides than literally any other crop in the world.
- 25% of the total insecticide usage globally is used on cotton plants.
- 10% of the total pesticide usage globally is used on cotton plants.
So now you have an idea of the scale of the problem, we can look at the impact that this usage has had in Australia specifically. Studies have concluded that Australian regions have suffered from the following environmental consequences of cotton production:
- Change of the water table
- Depletion of groundwater
- Salinisation of the soil surface
As well as the issues above, the worldwide impact of cotton farming is particularly pronounced. Other environmental issues linked to cotton farming include complete habitat destruction and contamination of surface water.
However, the biggest example of the destruction cotton farming is capable of is found in the Aral Sea in Central Asia. NASA satellite imagining found that the inland sea is now completely dry, and cotton farming has been blamed.
Unfortunately, the problems in the Aral Sea expand far beyond the loss of the water itself. The exposure of the lake bed of the Aral Sea has led to the release of salts and pesticides. These have led to land and air contamination, the latter of which has been linked to throat cancers and respiratory diseases in local farmers.
These problems all stem from the same basic reality: Cotton is a notoriously “thirsty” crop that requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to survive. The drained Aral Sea is the most noticeable consequence of cotton’s insatiable thirst.
The human cost
It is not just the environment that is negatively impacted by the cotton industry.
- Pesticides are extremely dangerous and cotton workers that breathe the fumes are liable to be poisoned. It is estimated that pesticide inhalation causes around 20,000 cases per year. The problem is particularly acute in the developing world.
- Genetically modified cotton is becoming more and more common. As mentioned, cotton is a particularly “weak” plant, and can easily fall victim to pests and insects. GMO cotton is bred to try and fortify the plant’s natural capabilities. However, GMO seeds are incredibly expensive. This has lead to many farmers having to go into debt to purchase seeds.
- In India, the choice for farmers is often severe debt or their livelihood. 95% of the seeds used in India to grow cotton are now GMO seeds. The debts sustained by Indian farmers are thought to be a contributory factor to the huge number of Indian cotton farmers who have committed suicide over recent years— more than 72,000 suicides of cotton farmers have been recorded since 1995.
- The exploitation continues, as the seeds are genetically modified so that they cannot be replanted. This forces farmers to continually buy new seeds every year, worsening the existing debt problems.
- The GMO seeds do not eliminate the need to use toxic pesticides and insecticides completely, so farmers are still vulnerable to health problems as well as the debt problems.
- Forced labour is an issue in nine countries who, between them, make up 65% of the world’s cotton production.
- Forced and child labour is a particularly acute problem in Uzbekistan, where the cotton industry is a huge contributor to the economy. Cotton grown in Uzbekistan is usually harvested by people, and children, working under forced labour conditions. The Uzbek government have also been accused of imprisoning and even torturing people who try to monitor the welfare of cotton workers.
The reality of the cotton industry is now laid bare, both in Australia and around the world as a whole. This is an industry that has been ruinous both for the environment and for the people who work, often by force, in the cotton industry. Given the viable options available to cotton, surely it’s time to turn our backs on this fabric once and for all?