Cotton: The World's Dirtiest Crop

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Cotton – The World’s Dirtiest Crop?
By Gary Beyer - April 11th 2010

Take a short drive through any rural area of Pinal County and it’s easy to see that cotton is one of the most widely grown crops in the area. Arizona's hot, dry climate is ideal for growing plentiful, white cotton, and Pinal County has the highest number of production acres in the state; in fact it is one of the most highly-producing cotton production areas in the US. Known as ‘white gold’, the genes of Arizona's cotton go back to varieties grown in Arizona and Mexico hundreds of years ago, and the earliest evidence of cotton production can be traced as far back as the Hohokam people who migrated to Arizona from Northern Mexico. The Hohokam lived along the major rivers in central Arizona, and this access to water enabled them to flood irrigate their small fields using a system of irrigation canals. The cotton crop grown by the Hohokam was quite different from today’s cotton. Unlike our dense, fluffy cotton bolls, Hohokam cotton was a scrubbier bush with sparse lint growing from the seedpod, and was parched and used in food, as well as being used for fiber.  In fact, the current era of super-farming, with six-row cotton pickers and international product marketing, bears little resemblance to the origins of cotton farming. Since I live and work in Pinal County and drive past acres of cotton fields on the way to work, I decided to find out more about how this crop is grown, its impact on the environment, and why it is known as ‘the world’s dirtiest crop’.

Cotton growing by the roadside in Eloy, Arizona
At first glance, the clean, white fields of the cotton plant seem anything but ‘dirty’. Cotton has been popular for many years as a breathable, natural fiber and provides for 50 percent of the world’s fiber needs. It is a leading cash crop in the U.S. generating annual business revenue of over $120 billion. Only China produces more.

But cotton’s reputation has been declining by the decade as more is learned about its impact on the environment and the people who grow it. In fact, cotton crops lead the agricultural need for pesticides, with conventional cotton farming requiring $2.6 billion worth of chemical pesticides each year. It is also responsible for 25 percent of global insecticide releases, more than any other single crop. In the US, it takes on average one third of a pound of agricultural chemicals to produce a single cotton T-shirt. According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, the cultivation of cotton uses approximately 11 percent of the world's pesticides, although it is grown on just 2.4 percent of the world's arable land. This high usage of chemicals has caused a disturbance in many ecosystems and health hazards around the world. Some of these chemicals are classified as toxic or carcinogenic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In California, five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton are cancer-causing chemicals.

In the developing world the situation is even worse, with 63 percent of all pesticides being used for controlling cotton pests, compared to 19 per cent used on rice, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables. The pesticides themselves are particularly deadly to third world workers. Aldicarb is classified by the World Health Organization as an extremely hazardous material and is used especially heavily in third world cotton production where they don’t have adequate legislation to protect workers against it. In Egypt, more than 50 percent of cotton workers in the 1990s suffered symptoms of chronic pesticide poisoning, and the World Health Organization estimates that at least three million people globally are poisoned by pesticides every year. Of those 3 million, more than 10,000 people die annually and another 40,000 get sick, according to Forecast Earth. Those at highest risk are cotton pickers and farmers: some estimates suggest that a farmer in developing...
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