Cotton is the world’s most important non-food agricultural commodity, yet it is responsible for the release of US$ 2 billion of chemical pesticides each year, within which at least US$ 819 million are considered

toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by theWorld Health Organisation. Cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide releases – more

than any other single crop. Almost 1.0 kilogram of hazardous pesticides is applied for every hectare under cotton.

● Between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute

pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalization each

year, according to a report prepared jointly for the FAO, UNEP and

WHO. These figures equate to between 25 million and 77 million agricultural workers worldwide. 

● Acute symptoms of pesticide poisoning include headaches, vomiting,

tremors, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing or respiratory

depression, loss of consciousness, seizures and death. Chronic effects

of long-term pesticide exposure include impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depression and confusion.

● In India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton

accounts for 54% of all pesticides used annually – despite occupying

just 5% of land under crops. In a single 5 month observation period, 97

cotton farmers experienced 323 separate incidents of ill health. Of these

39% were associated with mild poisoning, 38% with moderate poisoning, and 6 % with severe poisoning.

● A single drop of the pesticide aldicarb, absorbed through the skin can

kill an adult. Aldicarb is commonly used in cotton production and in

2003 almost 1 million kilos was applied to cotton grown in the USA.

Aldicarb is also applied to cotton in 25 other countries worldwide.

Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest cotton exporter, toxic agrochemicals first applied to cotton 50 years ago now pollute the country’s land, air, food and drinking water. Despite the substantial damage

that these chemicals cause to human health and the environment,

Uzbekistan’s dictatorship still sanctions the use of cotton pesticides so

toxic that they were banned under the Soviets. 

● Despite being particularly vulnerable to poisoning, child labourers

throughout the world risk exposure to hazardous pesticides through

participation in cotton production. In India and Uzbekistan children

are directly involved in cotton pesticide application.While in Pakistan,

Egypt, and Central Asia child labourers work in cotton fields either

during or following the spraying season. Children are also often the

first victims of pesticide poisonings, even if they do not participate to

spraying, due to the proximity of their homes to cotton fields, or

because of the re-use of empty pesticide containers.

● Hazardous pesticides associated with global cotton production represent a substantial threat to global freshwater resources. Hazardous cotton pesticides are now known to contaminate rivers in USA, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa. In Brazil,the world’s 4th largest consumer of agrochemicals, researchers tested rainwater for the presence of pesticides. 19 different chemicals were

identified of which 12 were applied to cotton within the study area.

● 9% of the world’s cotton farmers live and work in the developing

world where low levels of safety awareness, lack of access to protective

apparatus, illiteracy, poor labelling of pesticides, inadequate safeguards,

and chronic poverty each exacerbate the damage caused by cotton pesticides to low income communities. Together developing world farmers are responsible for producing 75% of global cotton production.

● While the bulk of global cotton production occurs in developing countries, the majority of cotton products are sold to consumers in the

developed world, with North America alone responsible for 25% of

global household cotton product consumption, and Europe accounting

for a further 20%. 

● Since the 1980s the global consumption of cotton has risen dramatically; almost doubling in the last 30 years. With demand now in excess

of 25 million tonnes annually, the world’s consumers buy more cotton

today than ever before. 

● The world’s cotton farmers produce around 34 million tonnes of cottonseed annually in addition to the fibre. Cottonseed is used as an animal feed and, in the form of cottonseed oil, as a common cooking product accounting for approximately 8% of the world’s vegetable oil consumption. Data compiled by FAO/WHO show the potential for

pesticides to contaminate both refined cottonseed oil and cottonseed derivatives fed to animals. 

● A 2004 study conducted by researchers at the Technical University of

Lódz, in Poland, has shown that hazardous pesticides applied during

cotton production can also be detected in cotton clothing. 

● Purchasing decisions made by consumers have the ability to directly

impact production methods and thereby both environmental security

and social equity.

● Organic cotton production offers a strong alternative to current production methods. Consumer demand for organic cotton currently stands at between US$ 800 million and US$ 1 billion, and is growing rapidly such that demand currently outstrips supply. With strong demand, organic cotton production not only offers a more environmentally and socially sustainable alternative, but is economically viable.  Cotton traders and investors (public and private) should encourage the conversion of conventional cotton production to organic methods.


In the Indian cotton growing season of 2005, researchers set out to

investigate the impact of acute pesticide poisoning on cotton farmers living in three villages in Andhra Pradesh. The scientists

recruited 50 female cotton growers who were asked to record the

adverse health impacts experienced by themselves and by one designated male relative.While the design of the experiment was simple, the

evidence it uncovered was deeply disturbing. Over a five month growing season, the 97 cotton labourers involved in the study experienced

a total of 323 separate incidents of ill health, of which 83.6% were associated with signs of mild to severe pesticide poisoning. Reported symptoms included burning eyes, breathlessness, excessive salivation, vomiting, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, muscle cramp, tremors, loss of

consciousness and seizures. In total up to 10% of all spraying sessions

were associated with three or more neurotoxic or systemic symptoms.

In reporting their study, the scientists behind the investigation

described India’s 10 million cotton farmers as working in a highly

unsafe occupational environment where protective measures and

equipment for the safe handling and spraying of pesticides are far from

being adopted; people work bare-foot and bare-handed wearing only

traditional sarongs; cotton farmers are directly exposed to pesticides

for between 3 and 4 hours per spraying session, and concentrated chemical products are mixed with water using bare hands. 

These harrowing observations of farmers exposed to hazardous pesticides are not untypical of cotton production in the developing world.

Yet they stand in stark contrast to the overtly safety conscious shopping malls of Western Europe and America, where newly washed tile

floors are earmarked with notices warning shoppers not to slip.  However, despite the scant similarities between the developing world’s 27

million cotton farmers and Western consumers, the two groups are

inextricably linked by cotton: the world’s most important non-food

agricultural commodity – a fibre we now produce and consume in

greater abundance than ever before.


From its initial cultivation in the Indus valley and South America in 3,000

BC, up until the 1950s, global cotton production occurred predominantly

without the use of hazardous agrochemicals


. For some 5,000 years cotton pests were controlled by agricultural management and tillage practices.

Pest cycles were taken into consideration before planting and at harvesting,

crop rotations were used, and cotton was planted at lower densities to reduce

the impact of pest populations.

Soon after the Second World War, global cotton production changed dramatically when a number of newly discovered neurotoxic chemicals – such as

DDT – were first introduced as an alternative means of pest control. Perceiving these chemicals to be a cheaper alternative to the use of labour and machinery, cotton farmers began to use these and former methods of pest control

were largely abandoned

. However, for many developing world cotton farmers,

the switch to toxic pesticides is a comparatively recent phenomenon. In Pakistan for example, just 5-10% of cotton cropland in the Punjab was treated with

pesticides in 1983

. By 1991 this figure had escalated to 95-98%.

The reasons for the poisoning are various, and in addition to occupational

exposure include food contamination, confusion of pesticides with food or

drink, and self harm. They reveal numerous family tragedies. In one case a

father left his pesticide-soaked work clothes on the roof of the house out of the

reach of his four children, aged six to eight. It rained during the night, and the

water passed through his clothes, dripping into domestic water vessels. The

next morning the children drank and washed using water from the vessels and

some minutes later suffered headaches, nausea and convulsions. They were

taken urgently to the health centre, but all four children died within about 20

hours. In another case three boys aged 12-14 were weeding their father’s cotton

fields, which were cultivated with maize. The father had sprayed endosulfan on

cotton the previous day. After weeding, the boys ate some maize cobs, but it had

been contaminated with spray drift. Fifteen minutes later they started vomiting. They were taken to hospital, but the boy of 12 died. In another instance, a

young boy of eight had been helping his parents by weeding in the cotton fields.

Feeling thirsty, he ran back to the house, but found an empty container by the

path and used it to scoop up some water from a ditch. He did not return home,

and a village search found his body next to the empty endosulfan bottle innocently used to quench his thirst.


E J Foundation