A Balanced Perspective on Cotton: Responding to Valid Problems, Challenging Irresponsible Critics

Cotton and cotton textile industries are central to the economic growth of both developed and developing countries and contribute to sustainable and socially responsible development. Cotton is grown in more than 100 countries on about 33 million hectares, or about 2.5% of the world’s arable land, making it one of the most significant crops in terms of land use after food grains and soybeans.

Cotton is also a broadly traded agricultural commodity, with almost all countries involved in exporting or importing cotton lint. When family labor, hired-on farm labor and workers in ancillary services such as transportation, ginning, baling and storage are considered, total involvement in the cotton sector is estimated at about 250 million people. Cotton also provides employment to additional millions in related industries such as agricultural inputs, machinery and equipment, cottonseed crushing and textile manufacturing. Cotton cultivation contributes to food security and improved life expectancy in rural areas of developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America . Cotton played an important role in industrial development starting in the 18th century and continues to play an important role today in the developing world as a major source of revenue. The value of 25.7 million tons of world cotton production in 2013/14 at an average world price of 89 U.S. cents per pound of lint will be about US$50 billion.


Despite the positive impacts of cotton and benefits to consumers, cotton is severely criticized for having negative impacts on the environment and for social abuses. To cite several examples, a clothing retailer distributes information on garments at the point of sale saying, “Cotton is one of the most toxic crops on the planet,” and goes on to misstate chemical use in cotton production, to use the terms “insecticides,” “pesticides” and “synthetic chemicals” interchangeably, and to equate biotech crops with “risky.” This same company extols the virtues of recycled polyester and organic fibers.

A non-government organization issues specific reports on cotton saying that, “Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically dependent agriculture.” This NGO adds that, “Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market including aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan. Cotton pesticides are often broad-spectrum organophosphates–pesticides originally developed as toxic nerve agents during World War II–and carbamate pesticides. Pesticides used on cotton even when used according to instructions harm people, wildlife and the environment. These pesticides can poison farm workers, drift into neighboring communities, contaminate ground and surface water and kill beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms.”

Another organization has a specific project on cotton and says on its web site, “Valued at over $32 billion every year, global cotton production should be improving lives. But this “white gold” too often brings misery.” The cotton project of this organization is complete with films, photos and celebrity support. There are many examples of negative information about the world cotton industry being disseminated by various interest groups. The most common claims are that cotton requires excessive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, that the most toxic agricultural chemicals are used on cotton, that the use of pesticides on cotton is increasing, that chemical residues damage the health of cotton farmers, farm workers and neighbors in cotton farming areas, that pesticide residues from cotton seed are passed on to consumers in meat and dairy products, that cotton uses an excessive amount of water, that cotton utilizes child labor and forced labor, that cotton production is environmentally devastating, and that in some countries the cotton industry contributes to political repression and poverty.

Three-Pronged Response

Responses to information of this type by persons with knowledge of the cotton industry are predictable: denial, dismissal, umbrage, or anger. However, such responses are not constructive, and despite an abundance of empirical evidence refuting or placing in context each of the allegations, complaints against cotton are not going away. The danger to the industry is that cotton depends on consumer preference to maintain demand. Polyester can be longer, stronger, finer, more uniform, without contamination and more stable in price than cotton, and spinners would shift to polyester if consumers would buy such products. Therefore, allegations that potentially undermine consumer confidence in cotton, and thus encourage consumers to choose alternative fibers, are a serious threat to the sustainability of the industry and the livelihoods of more than 250 million.

Consequently, there must be a three-pronged response consisting of 1) listening to allegations and considering appropriate strategies in response to valid concerns, 2) improving cotton’s performance through mainstreaming of best practices, and 3) confronting egregious misinformation campaigns and calling to account those who know, or should know, that such allegations are exaggerated or erroneous.

The world cotton industry has listened to, and been responsive to, valid criticisms for decades. As far back as the 1970s, the cotton industry was a leader in the application of integrated insect management strategies and resistance management to reduce reliance on insecticides. The cotton industries in many countries have worked for decades on improved sustainability of production systems through minimization of resource use and insistence on safe application methods for all chemicals. The cotton industry has been an eager adopter of biotechnology, largely as a tool to enable reduced insecticide use while protecting yields, thus preserving sustainability.

Setting the Record Straight

Cotton advocates must be aggressive in setting the record straight in response to allegations of waste, harm and injury. For instance, rather than accounting for 25% of all pesticides used worldwide, as is commonly alleged, cotton accounted for 6.2% of world pesticide sales in 2012, down from 11% of sales in 1988 . Within the category of pesticides, there are herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, seed care chemicals and other plant protection chemicals. Cotton production accounted for 4.2% of world herbicide sales in 2012, 17.5% of world insecticide sales, 1% of fungicide sales and 68% of all other chemicals (primarily defoliants used in machine harvesting). Typical insecticide applications per hectare of cotton are approximately one kilogram of active ingredient per hectare in most production areas, although applications in some countries are higher. More pesticides are applied on other crops, including fruits and vegetables, grains, and soybeans than on cotton, although use per hectare is lower for grains and oilseeds than cotton.

Those who wish to demonize cotton love to recall the destruction of the Aral Sea during the 1950s and 1960s in the former Soviet Union. The Aral Sea was destroyed by mismanagement innate to the Soviet agricultural system, not by the water requirements of cotton. In fact, cotton accounts for about 3% of world agricultural water use, proportional to its share of world arable land use . The reason the Aral Sea example is used repeatedly by cotton’s detractors is because they have no other example they can use, and that example is now 50 years old. Cotton is a drought-tolerant crop and is grown in arid regions because it can be grown in such conditions; regions are not arid because cotton is grown there.

Common to many of the allegations of waste, harm and injury leveled against cotton is the use of evocative and subjective adjectives such as “toxic,” “harmful,” “hazardous,” “synthetic,” “poisonous,” “dangerous,” and “risky.” Such adjectives are hard to refute because they are non-objective, and because critics make no differentiation between hazard, exposure and risk. (A substance or piece of machinery can be hazardous, but if exposure is limited through safe practices, risk is small.) However, use of such evocative language undermines consumer perceptions of the safety of cotton. Cotton’s detractors also commonly hedge their statements with modifiers such as “may,” “could,” or “as much as.” This allows critics to imply that individual occurrences or worst-case situations are common to the cotton industry without having to document sources. A particular frustration is the intermingled use of the terms, “agricultural chemicals,” “pesticides,” “fertilizers,” and “insecticides,” as if all are equivalent. This allows detractors to malign the cotton industry by claiming hundreds of kilograms of “dangerous chemicals” are applied per hectare of cotton production, when applications of plant protection chemicals amount to a few kilograms per hectare at most, and even these are applied safely almost all the time.

The biggest social challenge facing the cotton industry is child labor. All countries agree that labor standards for both adults and children should be followed, and all countries have laws in place that ban abuse. However, enforcement is inconsistent. The keys to improving social performance are economic growth, education and employment alternatives.

Hundreds of millions of children work in agriculture, not just in cotton. In western countries, children’s work has become so unusual that any picture of a child in a field is interpreted as exploitation. Cotton is a driver of economic development and wealth creation where it is grown. Because cotton can be stored for years without deterioration, cotton often provides the only connection to world markets and the opportunity to earn cash incomes for growers in interior areas. Negative social conditions exist in some countries because of history and culture, low levels of education, and weak economic conditions, not because cotton is grown in these countries.

Exaggeration, combined with the hubris of self-righteousness, are common to the criticisms of cotton. Negative allegations, no matter how unlikely, are taken at face value and repeated by campaigners, thus giving credence to exaggeration and falsehoods, while efforts to explain, offer perspective or refute are dismissed as self serving or ignored as unworthy because they undermine a moral cause. Reports of child labor in cotton harvesting show pictures of children working, often with the claim, without evidence or explanation, that there are governments that knowingly allow or are even forcing such labor. If child labor were as common as charged, critics would not need to distort or ignore explanations. Likewise, if water waste and environmental damage associated with cotton production were as egregious as claimed, critics would not need to use worst-case examples as if they were representative, and critics would not need to use examples decades old as if they represented current practice.

This is not to state or imply that there are no problems with cotton production or that all allegations are false or exaggerated. The cotton industry has long been acknowledging the need for improvement, working to develop pragmatic approaches and encouraging adoption of best practices.

Cotton will continue to listen to allegations, as well as to identify problems without prompting, to consider appropriate strategies in response to valid concerns, and to improve cotton’s performance through mainstreaming of best practices. Industry leaders and government officials with responsibility for regulation of cotton production must also be active in confronting egregious misinformation campaigns and calling to account those who know that such allegations are exaggerated or erroneous. Industry detractors should be challenged to use data, not myth supported by circular citations; to use current examples, not information decades old; to use examples representative of the cotton industry as a whole, not isolated worst cases; and to use examples that are characteristic of cotton, not the flawed management systems imposed in individual circumstances.