Impacts of cotton

Cotton is a vital crop. But its production uses vast quantities of water and pesticides—depleting and polluting water supplies for people, wildlife and damaging fresh water ecosystems.

Use of agrochemicals

When produced in the conventional way, cotton generally uses up substantial amounts of fertilisers and pesticides. For example,cotton producers apply 25% of all insecticides used each year. In developing countries, half of the pesticides used on all crops are applied to cotton.

Pesticides are a health threat to workers; to organisms in the soil; to migratory species such as insects, birds, and mammals; and to downstream freshwater species. Studies have estimated the human impact from pesticides used on cotton to be as high as 20,000 people killed and 3 million poisoned every year (IISD/WWF 1997). 

People are also affected through water runoff, drift of sprayed mist, the use of empty pesticide containers for other purposes, and inadequate or illegal disposal of expired or unused pesticides (Banuri 1999).

Water Use

Seven thousand to 29,000 litres of water are required for each kilogram of cotton produced (Soth 1999). Estimates indicate that cotton represents more than 50% of the irrigated agricultural land in the world, with cotton production and processing a major source of pollution of fresh water (Soth 1999).

In many cotton-producing areas, surface waters are diverted to irrigate cotton. Freshwater is then lost through evaporation, seepage, and inefficient water management. In fact, 60% of the water used in irrigation never makes it to the targeted plant.

Groundwater depletion is another issue associated with cotton cultivation. Groundwater systems can take hundreds or even thousands of years to be refilled once they have been drained.

Soil erosion & degradation

Cotton farmers have eliminated certain insects through the use of pesticides, resulting in high mortality of birds and aquatic wildlife. This has also reduced soil quality and fertility. And yet, without such organisms, soil becomes little more than a growth medium to which producers must add all the necessary nutrients required by cotton.

Where evaporation exceeds rainfall and the fresh water from irrigation, salinisation is inevitable. Half of the irrigated land in Uzbekistan has lost productivity due to salinisation.

Freshwater contamination

Runoff from cotton fields contaminates rivers, lakes, and wetlands with pesticides, fertilisers, and salts. These pollutants can affect biodiversity directly due to their toxicity or indirectly through long-term accumulation. Underground aquifers can also be contaminated with chemicals, pesticides, or salts from cotton production. This draws into question any potential future uses of the water.

Habitat Conversion

Much of the land used to cultivate cotton has been in production for generations. This is true of areas in China, the United States, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and Brazil. However, other areas have been converted rather recently. By the late 1970s 400,000 hectares of Central American cotton fields were producing over a million bales of cotton annually, making it the third largest cotton-producing region after North America and the former Soviet Union.

Virtually all the hardwood forests there were destroyed as were coastal savannas, evergreen forests, and coastal mangrove swamps. Only 2% of the original forests in the Central American cotton production areas remain.

Cotton can indirectly cause the conversion of natural areas as well. For example, the construction of dams to create reservoirs for irrigation water supplies can destroy considerable areas of riverine habitat and the species it supports as well as migratory species within river systems.

In addition, the mechanisation of cotton production, and its subsequent abandonment, in Central America displaced considerable numbers of landless labourers who then moved into highland, forested areas where they cleared land to produce subsistence crops.

Be part of the solution

► If you are a cotton producer, supplier, manufacturer, retailer or brand, then the Better Cotton Initiative can help you support a more sustainable cotton industry: Find out more here

► If you are concerned about the environmental and social impact of the cotton products that you buy—that’s clothes and linen among other—contact your favourite clothing companies and ask them if they’re part of the Better Cotton Initiative.

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