The cost of cotton: Dirty cotton

A toxic, thirsty crop

A thirsty crop

The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland lake with a thriving ecosystem, has shrunk to just 15% of its original size, mainly as a result of irrigation for the cotton industry.

Photo of Aral sea in 1989, and 2003, showing dramatic shrinkage

The Aral Sea in 1989, and 2003: the shrinking of the Aral Sea is one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever recorded.


The salinity of water and the soil has increased, and as desperate farmers apply more water to the fields they exacerbate the problem. This leads to infertile soil and huge areas of salty desert contaminated with pesticide residues. Toxic salty dust poisons the population around the Aral Sea, and in some regions half of all deaths are respiratory in nature.

The Aral Sea used to host a thriving fishing industry. It is now almost completely lifeless. Wrecks of stranded boats now mark where busy fishing communities once existed.

Abandoned ship in former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan, spring 2003.

Abandoned ship in former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan, spring 2003.

Image released into the public domain by its author, Staecker at the English Wikipedia project

Only about 27% of cotton is grown under rain-fed conditions. The rest is produced in irrigated fields which leads to greater water loss through seepage, evaporation and poor water management. In Uzbekistan it is estimated that 60% of water is lost through the irrigation system.

Toxic industry

Huge amounts of pesticides are used on conventionally grown (i.e. non-organic) cotton.

  • In India, cotton accounts for 5% of the land under crops and 54% of annual pesticide use.

These chemicals can have a serious impact on the health of the people who apply them. Most pesticides are applied in developing countries, where farmers often lack the equipment, information and training to handle pesticides effectively.

Aldicarb, the world’s second biggest selling pesticide is classified as extremely hazardous by the World Health Organisation. One drop absorbed through the skin is enough to kill an adult, yet this pesticide is still widely used in cotton production.

After years of dangerous pesticide use in Uzbekistan, the population of the region of Karakalpakstan face a host of appalling health problems. Malnutrition is rife as vegetables will no longer grow in the polluted soil; 99% of pregnant women suffer from anaemia and rates of throat cancer are the highest in the world. Scientists have found a level of DNA mutation 3.5 times higher than normal — meaning health problems could be around for generations.

  • At least 1 million agricultural workers require hospitalisation each year as a result of acute pesticide poisoning.

Organic cotton

Soil Association logo

The Soil Association organic symbol is the UK’s main certification mark, appearing on approximately 70% of organic food produced in the UK. Read more about organic standards here

Organic cotton is produced without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilisers — protecting both the environment and farmers’ health. Instead methods such as crop rotation are adopted to discourage the development of pests, and natural predators are encouraged. Organic farming encourages biodiversity and promotes better water management.

Farmers receive an organic premium on top of the market price (although not a guaranteed price), and the labelling system introduces transparency and traceability.

While still only a small proportion of total cotton production, consumer demand means output is expanding rapidly — which is good news for farmers and the environment.

However going organic isn’t easy. There’s a transition period before farms can be certified organic. The farmers have to learn about new methods and it can take a few years for cotton yields to return to the levels achieved with chemicals. Purchasing organic cotton in conversion, or buying from companies that support farmers to convert is one way to help farmers make the transition.

Previous: Cotton Subsidies | next: Uzbekistan: funding exploitation

Sources and further reading

The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton, Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK, 2007, London, UK. ISBN 1-904523-10-2

This report “exposes the human health and the environmental cost of pesticide use in global cotton production. US$2 billion worth of chemicals are sprayed on world’s cotton every year, many are classified ‘extremely or highly hazardous’ by the World Health Organisation.”

“Wear Organic is a project from Pesticide Action Network UK aiming to reduce the problems from pesticides used in cotton, particularly by promoting organic and fair alternatives.” The site includes the report My sustainable T-shirt: A guide to organic, fair trade, and other eco standards and labels for cotton textiles; an information resource centre with “everything you need to know about cotton and sustainability, including pesticide, health and GM issues; information on [where cotton is grown throughout the world] and a consumer guide and directory.

“The aim of this report is to assess the ‘water footprint’ of worldwide cotton consumption, identifying both the location and the character of the impacts.”

“The UK’s leading environmental charity promoting sustainable, organic farming and championing human health”.