Despite cotton being an important industry operating on six continents, an inordinate amount of attention is paid to production in just one country, Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan accounts for 4% of world cotton production and about 8% of exports, but Uzbekistan probably receives about 80% (just a guess) of all the press coverage and NGO comment about the cotton industry. This is because most comment is meant to demonize the cotton industry, not inform about its practices, and Uzbekistan presents a convenient target.
Cotton and the Aral Sea
Two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, feed the Aral Sea. The Soviet government deliberately diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers beginning in the 1960s to irrigate the desert region around the Aral Sea (Thompson, Colombia University, 2008, http://www.columbia.edu/~tmt2120/introduction.htm). The majority of the water diverted from the rivers for agriculture was “soaked up by the desert and blatantly wasted (between 25% and 75%, depending on the time period). Further, cotton accounted for less than half, 41% of cultivated land; grains, including rice and wheat, accounted for 32% of cultivated land, fruit crops 11%, vegetables 4%, and other crops 12%.
And yet, those who wish to demonize, blame the Aral Sea disaster on cotton, not on Soviet mismanagement, not on an inefficient irrigation system and not on other crops.
The assertion that the destruction of the Aral Sea is a recent event, having occurred since Uzbekistan independence, is in error by about three decades.
The Aral Sea was destroyed by mismanagement innate to the Soviet agricultural system, not by the water requirements of cotton. Cotton’s detractors repeatedly cite the Aral Sea disaster because they wish to demonize rather than inform, and there is no other example they can use. In the history of world agriculture, there is not a single other example of a major ecosystem being destroyed by water use associated with cotton production.
Cotton production in Uzbekistan has been in long-term decline. Production in the 1980s and early 1990s was 1.6 million tons of lint (approximately 5 million tons of seed cotton); production today is 800,000 to 1 million tons, and some analysts believe that production will decline to 500,000 tons by 2025. A shift in planted area to wheat was mandated by the government in the early 1990s to enhance food security, and further declines in area have occurred in the two decades since. The Uzbekistan government has been contracting, not expanding, the cotton industry since independence.
So many people have said so much about cotton so many times in so many places in so many ways, that it is now possible to make almost any assertion without even thinking about whether such a thing is even possible of if it makes any sense. The assertion that cotton is produced in a monoculture in Uzbekistan, or anywhere else, is an example.
Farmers have understood the importance of crop rotations to maintain good soil health and break up insect, weed and disease populations since the days of the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia. To believe that a monoculture is practiced anywhere in the world on a wide scale, you have to assume that farmers, scientists and government agriculture officials are stupid.
Many people see a picture of a huge field stretching off into the distance and assume that represents a monoculture. Large rectangular fields are planted to cotton, and other row crops, because such configurations enhance efficiencies in machinery use. The same fields are planted to rotation crops the following planting period, thus achieving efficiency while also maintaining soil health.
There is no cotton monoculture practiced in Uzbekistan, or anywhere else. In Uzbekistan, the most common crop rotation is wheat and cotton, although other grains and oilseeds are also included in cropping patterns. Furthermore, there never has been a cotton monoculture in Central Asia. The Soviet Union, for all its failings, at least produced good scientist, and cotton has always been produced in rotation with grains and oilseeds.
Anytime someone says that cotton is planted in a monoculture in Uzbekistan, you can bet the author has never been there and knows little about agriculture.
Huge Amounts of Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides
Uzbekistan is the northernmost cotton growing country in the world; Tashkent is at the same latitude as Chicago in the United States. Uzbekistan experiences severe winters and very hot summers. Consequently, Uzbekistan experiences the lightest pest pressure of major cotton growing regions in the world. Using techniques developed during the Soviet period, Uzbekistan is a world leader in the use of bio-pesticides, and in many seasons chemical herbicide and insecticide applications are zero. In worst-case scenarios of relatively heavy pest pressure, less than half of cotton area in Uzbekistan is sprayed one to two times with insecticides in any season. Herbicides are rarely used because weather tends to be cold and wet in the spring, resulting in weed death prior to cotton planting.
All inputs used in cotton production in Uzbekistan and elsewhere, including pesticides and fertilizer, are fully biodegradable. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were insecticides used in agriculture that were persistent, the best known is DDT, but those chemicals have been banned for approximately 40 years and none are used anymore. Today, none of the chemicals applied in cotton production has a mode of action that persists for more than a few weeks; all degrade back into their constituent molecules through interaction with soil, air, sunlight and water. (If you go into a local garden store to buy something for your vegetable or flower garden, you might notice that pesticides are sold in opaque bottles. That is because pesticides break down through interaction with sunlight, so pesticides in a clear bottle would have a very short shelf life.)
Fertilizer consists of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), plus trace elements such as boron (B). These are themselves natural elements, not chemicals and usually not contaminants.
Phosphorous and potassium remain in the soil until used by the plant. These elements are like cans of soup on a shelf in a kitchen; they just sit there until used. They are not contaminants and they are not toxic.
Nitrogen can either evaporate into the atmosphere (contributing to global warming) or leach into the water table to contaminate drinking water and promote algae bloom. Nitrogen fertilizer is like left over pizza in a refrigerator; it is not toxic, it is not a contaminant, but it can spoil is not eaten in time. The reason the pizza is in the refrigerator is because too much was ordered to begin with, and the best solution is to use what you have and order less in the future.
The biggest source of nitrogen contamination in agriculture is from grain crops, because they have shallow root systems. However, even in cotton and other broad-leafed crops, over-use of nitrogen raises production costs and harms the environment. Farmers in Uzbekistan and elsewhere are shifting to low-till and no-till farming systems (systems that minimize soil disturbance). Even in cases of excessive nitrogen application, fertilizers are not toxic and do not contribute to “toxic dust storms.”
Trace elements like boron are like little containers of salt and pepper and other spices in the kitchen. They are not contaminants, they are not toxic in the small doses used in agriculture (salt by the way is highly toxic in large doses), and while spices are important they are too small to make much difference in terms of nutritional balance.
The assertion that pesticide and fertilizer run-off from cotton fields in Uzbekistan exacerbated pollution problems and contributed to health problems is false. Those who make this assertion are simply parroting bad science read from other sources whose objective is to demonize rather than inform.
Child Labor and Forced Labor
The biggest social challenge facing the cotton industry is child labor and forced 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.
Almost all cotton in Uzbekistan is harvested by hand, and an estimated 3 million people were involved in some aspects of the cotton harvest during 2014. This represents about 10% of the population of Uzbekistan and about 20% of the work force.
Total earnings by workers harvesting cotton were between US$250 million to $300 million in 2014 (235 soms/kg of seed cotton), depending on the exchange rate. Cotton picking is an important source of seasonal cash income for many rural households, and many people who currently earn seasonal incomes during the cotton harvest would be negatively affected by mechanization.
Earnings per person associated with cotton harvesting were around $80 to $100 on average, but workers who picked more than average or who followed the harvest from region to region would have earned more.
Per capita GDP in rural areas of Uzbekistan is about $1,400. Therefore, earnings per person associated with cotton harvesting represented 6% or 7% of average annual earnings in rural areas in 2014.
However, the importance of income from harvesting cotton may be greater to farm workers and farm families than indicated by percentages of 6 or 7. Out of the many millions of person-hours involved in gathering each cotton harvest, farmers, family members and farm workers account for the bulk of this time. Since farm workers tend to be the lowest paid in any economy, and since income associated with cotton might be the only cash income received by many rural workers, income from cotton harvesting was highly important to some workers.
It is a common practice by those who wish to demonize the cotton industry to focus on worst case situations as if they are representative, to use examples years out of date as if they are current, and to ignore progress as if the cotton sector is resistant to improvement or adverse to change.
The Government of Uzbekistan recently adopted a policy to mechanize 70% or more of the cotton harvest by 2016. Mechanization will shorten the harvest season by several weeks, reduce the amount of labor required each season, and increased industrial employment will be facilitated in the assembly, operation and maintenance of equipment. But mechanization will also lower demand for labor in rural areas, and cash incomes for those that pick cotton will be reduced.
Child labor in the cotton sector was eliminated by Uzbekistan in 2012, and forced adult labor is being systematically reduced. Since 2013, Uzbekistan has been working with The World Bank and the ILO to assure full compliance with ILO conventions on child labor and adult labor, and Uzbekistan is now cooperating with both The World Bank and the ILO to ensure implementation of the Program of Decent Labor