The problem with conventional cotton

It is no secret that conventional cotton farming is harmful for the planet. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), it covers 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides.

But what about the human impacts of this dirty crop? These impacts form an equally strong case against conventional cotton.

“Poisoning is a significant global public health problem,” the World Health Organisation says.

A problem which is closely linked to the toxic chemicals used in the farming of conventional cotton crops for clothing.

This is an intersectional issue as well, with marginalised groups of garment workers most likely to face exposure. According to a PAN report entitled ‘Is Cotton Conquering Its Chemical Addiction,’ Africa accounts for 8-9% of the world’s cotton market. And, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, 90% of pesticides are used in cotton.

The common use of these chemicals can have devastating effects on human health. Glyphosate, for example, is an herbicide that’s used commonly on cotton crops and has been found to have “genotoxic effects… as well as reproductive, developmental, immune and neurological effects.”

Similarly, another common insecticide lambda cyhalothrin has also been “classified as an endocrine disruptor and can present reproductive toxicity.”

As a result of these sorts of chemicals being used in conventional cotton farming today, women that live in and around the affected areas have been found to experience related reproductive issues. According to a study on organochlorine pesticides and female puberty in South Kazakhstan, for example, “increased concentrations of pesticides in the blood of women and girls living in cotton-growing regions is associated with… a reduced level of two specific hormones.”

With this in mind, better education is needed around the effects of conventional cotton farming on worker health. And we need to support organisations like Intersectional Environmentalist – which is working to dismantle systems of oppression in the environmental movement.

We just can’t ignore the human impacts of conventional cotton. Which is why it’s important to shop sustainably, both for the health of the planet and the health of people.


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