The use of pesticides in cotton farming has shown some improvement over the years, particularly in the utilization of less harmful chemicals, but progress remains slow, according to a new report from the Pesticide Action Network U.K.
The report, published with support from the C&A Foundation, investigates the current rate of pesticide use in cotton, and examines its trends and patterns of use.
Findings suggest that total pesticide use in cotton has fallen since the 1980s. In particular, insecticide use has declined, as has herbicide, although neither are as significant as some have claimed and both are on the rise in some places.
The coverage of sustainability standards such as the Better Cotton Initiative, Cotton made in Africa, Fairtrade and Organic has dramatically increased. These standards, which restrict the use of some highly hazardous pesticides and promote farming practices to reduce reliance on pesticides, now reach over 1.7 million farmers and cover 3.7 million hectares, the report, “Is Cotton Conquering Its Chemical Addiction?” noted.
Pest adaptation to the new transgenic genetically modified environment is also changing the way pests are controlled and in some cases requiring the pattern of insecticide use to be adapted, the report noted.
“What is clear from this report is that the promised reductions in pesticide use from genetically modified cotton are often illusory and short-lived,” said Keith Tyrell, Director, PAN UK. “Poor resistance management and new pests are driving big increases in insecticide use in India, China and Brazil, while the introduction of herbicide-tolerant GM varieties has seen a massive increase in herbicide use in some countries like the U.S.”
Cotton supports around 100 million rural families across the globe. It provides employment and income, and is the mainstay of the economies of some of the poorest countries in the world. But cotton growing has had its problems, having been associated with everything from forced and child labor to pesticide poisoning of farmers and their families and environmental pollution.
[Read more about cotton farming: Sustainable Cotton Ranking Report Calls Out Companies for Cotton Sourcing Commitments]
Many of the most egregious practices harming human health and the environment have been or are being addressed. But it is a work in progress and data on the level of change is sketchy, the report stated.
PAN UK took a detailed look at six countries and regions that combine to account for around 80 percent of the world’s cotton production: Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and the U.S.
The report noted that reliable data on global pesticide use in cotton is not readily available and is spread across multiple sources with different approaches to data collection. In this report, PAN UK drew on figures from the Agricultural Outlook 2016-2017 database compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Where possible, these data sets have been compared with information made publicly available from other official or scientific literature sources, such as the International Cotton Advisory Council, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other national data sources.
Progress is not uniform: some countries have achieved and sustained significant reductions in pesticide use, while others have seen use rise. The report said those countries that have been most successful at cutting pesticide use and in keeping it low have been those who have embraced Integrated Pest Management.
The introduction of Bt cotton – cotton genetically modified to be toxic to certain cotton pests – in the early part of the century was followed by a dip in insecticide use, but this reduction has not been sustained in many of the countries examined.
This renewed increase in insecticide use has been driven by a surge in “secondary” pests like aphids, thrips and jassids. These pests, which had previously caused relatively low levels of damage, have now become a serious threat to cotton productivity.
Poor resistance management, particularly in mixed smallholder cropping systems with minimal coordination and regulation, is leading some species of bollworm to develop resistance to certain varieties of Bt cotton and to an increase in insecticide use.
PAN UK said Australia has the highest cotton yield in the world, but has had an 89 percent drop in pesticide use over the last two decades, while herbicide use has remained the same.
Turkey uses Integrated Pest Management and has rejected genetically modified cotton, so has doubled yields since the 1980s and has the lowest use of pesticides of the countries studied, the report said.
“The lesson is clear,” the report concluded. “If it is serious about reducing pesticide use, the sector must make more use of tools like IPM and other agro-ecological approaches to control pests.”