Wherever it is grown, unless produced in line with sustainable practices, cotton production can present significant challenges, and in some parts of the world may be associated with high social, environmental, and economic impacts. As progress has been made in the industry, these impacts have been reduced in recent years, and there are encouraging signs that this trend is continuing. However, considerable concerns remain in growing cotton.
Water quantity and quality issues - Under poor management practices cotton can contribute to over-consumption of water, depending on where and how it is grown. Various factors affect how much water is used, and how much pollution is generated. These include whether the cotton is rain-fed, irrigation methods used, which types and quantities of fertilizers and pesticide are applied, and soil types. Worldwide, an estimated 60% of our cotton is grown in irrigated fields and 40% under rain-fed conditions. Unless managed properly, cotton production can use and pollute significant amounts of water. Irrigation farmers use groundwater and/or surface water, which, if not managed or regulated, depletes freshwater resources, particularly in water stressed regions. In cotton production, as with many crops, the use of fertilizers can enrich the water with nitrogen, which negatively impacts drinking water sources for people, animals, and aquatic life.
Inappropriate and excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers - When not grown according to sustainable practices, cotton production can be an large consumer of pesticides and fertilizers. While their use has reduced over recent years, cotton currently uses 2.5% of the world’s arable land, yet 10% of all agricultural chemicals like those found in pesticides and fertilizers. In 2009 cotton producers accounted for 6.2% of total global pesticide sales and 14.1% of insecticide sales for all crops. Pesticides and fertilizers, inappropriately used, can seriously pollute water sources and decrease soil fertility. They also can have significantly harmful effects on human health and biodiversity. Fertilizer production and use can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
Low incomes of small farmers - Over 60% of the world’s cotton is produced by small cotton farmers, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the world. Around 90% of these estimated 100 million small farmers live in developing countries and grow the crop on less than two hectares. Many small cotton farmers live below the poverty line, earning less for the sale of their cotton than they need to meet basic needs such as food, healthcare, and tools. These farmers often suffer high levels of debt, in part due to high input costs (such as pesticides and fertilizers). Along with other market factors, this can contribute to a perpetual cycle of poverty for many. Cotton is an important rotation crop for small farmers, for fiber, fuel and food, (such as cotton seed oil) and the cash income it generates is vital to improved living standards.
Forced labor and child labor - The US Department of Labor reported in 2016 that child labor or forced labor existed in the cotton production process in 18 countries, including several of the top six producer nations (China, India, Pakistan, Brazil). In 2018 the US banned import of cotton from Turkmenistan due to findings of state-enforced slave labor. Promisingly, recent improvements in labor rights have been reported in some areas, notably Uzbekistan, though more headway needs to be made.
Soil depletion - Like other crops, cotton farming can lead to land clearing, soil erosion and contamination, and loss of soil biodiversity. Poorly managed, it can lead to the loss of soil fertility and declines in productivity.
Adapting to land use pressures of the future - With a world population set to rise to 9 billion by 2030, the increased demand for food, water, and energy will challenge the feasibility of many crops, including cotton. Demand for food could rise by 40%, water by 35%, and energy by 50% or more, increasing the pressure to convert land use from fibers to food and fuel. The area under cotton cultivation has been decreasing, in part due to improved yields and productivity, with potential for continued improvement in land use efficiency through better growing practices. Even so, the quantity and quality of cotton will be increasingly affected by the impacts of climate change, as cotton growing regions experience more frequent floods, droughts and extreme heat and storms. This will present mounting difficulties across the entire agricultural supply chain.
Now that we have shared the basics of cotton as well as the challenges facing the fiber, return next week as we dive into and explore cotton sustainability.