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HEBEI, July 6, 2016 — A drone sprays pesticide over cotton fields in Zhaoshou Village of Nangong ... [+] City, north China's Hebei Province, July 6, 2016.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
In my six years of journalism, none of my articles have generated as much debate as this cotton misinformation series. The previous three articles debunking myths about organic versus conventional cotton, water consumption, and cotton being a “thirsty” crop, have drawn cries of relief and fierce conjecture, with heated conversations ongoing on LinkedIn.
Cotton is an emotive subject, with the livelihoods of more than 20 million cotton farmers and workers in gins, mills, and garment factories on the line. The final stop on this global myth-busting tour of the most prominent plant-based textile fiber is Pesticides.
During an interview with the authors of the Transformers Foundation case study on cotton misinformation, they disclosed that the biggest knowledge and data gaps in the cotton industry are around pesticides. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes a pesticide as “any substance, or a mixture of substances of chemical or biological ingredients intended for repelling, destroying or controlling any pest, or regulating plant growth.” Despite encompassing more than 1,000 active ingredients, pesticides are often talked about as if they’re all one thing, the case study explains. Its authors Elizabeth Cline and Marzia Lanfranchi warn that oversimplification and inaccurate pesticide usage figures stand in the way of understanding their environmental and social impacts, and taking action.
Cotton farmers use a variety of pesticides that target insects (insecticides), weeds (herbicides), and fungal infections (fungicides). They also use growth regulators, and defoliants to aid mechanical harvesting. The majority of cotton seeds come pretreated with insecticides and fungicides, and additional pesticides are used on soil (to control weeds, fungus, and insect pests), and as an application on the cotton crop.
Regulations and reporting on pesticide use vary from country to country, and the most complete and current publicly available data, held by ICAC (the International Cotton Advisory Committee) relates to pesticide sales—not use. Pesticide data gaps are “staggering”, according to the cotton misinformation case study, and it is particularly scant throughout much of Africa, where chemicals can have a high human impact: There are millions of smallholder cotton farmers, and a higher rate of usage of the most hazardous pesticides (as deduced from pesticide sales data). On the flip side, high-income countries, including the U.S. and Australia, require farmers to submit detailed pesticide usage data - but this data may not be publicly available.
During their research, the study’s authors discovered that nuanced country-specific pesticide data is privately held and must be purchased from market research groups such as Phillips McDougall (IHS) and AgbioInvestor. Cline and Lanfranchi describe this as “silenced data” that they were quoted fees of up to $80,000 to gain access. They conclude that due to pesticides’ human health and environmental implications, “there is an urgent need for data that captures exactly what pesticides are being used, where, and how, including the method of application.”
Cotton on a farm in Fayoum, southern Cairo, Egypt, September 19, 2021. (Photo by Fadel ... [+] Dawod/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Organic cotton is grown without synthetic chemicals and synthetic pesticides or genetically modified seeds. As of the 2019/2020 growing season, organic cotton held a 0.95% market share of cotton, according to Textile Exchange’s preferred fiber and materials market report 2021. This statistic tells us that understanding the environmental and social impacts of cotton pesticide use is central to sustainable cotton farming, as the proportion of crops grown without them is negligible. In short, we need to ensure safe pesticide use because eliminating pesticides doesn’t seem viable for several reasons: The global demand for textile fibers (including cotton) is growing, and the limited yield capacity of organic cotton cannot meet that demand. Therefore, pesticide use should be analyzed and optimized for long-term environmental, social, and economic sustainability, but to do this, access to the so-called “silenced data” is needed.
To achieve sustainable cotton production pesticide use requires clarification. The most common statements about cotton pesticides are outdated and inaccurate:
25% of the world’s insecticides are used on cotton. Rating: Red.
Another common and related claim is that: ‘Cotton uses 16% to 25% of pesticides globally’.
During their research, Transformers Foundation tracked down what they believe to be the primary source of the 24-25% claim: A 1995 marketing report created for companies in the seed and agrochemical industries. Though the report is not publicly available, the report authors interviewed one of its co-authors who confirmed that it stated that cotton accounted for 10% of pesticides sales and 22.5% of insecticides sales globally. It’s unclear how the percentage morphed into a higher figure, but the researchers believe it may be due to erratic copying and pasting of the information.
Global ‘pesticide use’ data is deduced from the global pesticides sales, not the actual usage reported by farmers. This approximated usage is usually stated as kilograms (kg) of active ingredient per hectare, and the amount used varies according to regional pests and disease, climate, and other factors. It can span from 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of active ingredient per hectare (2.5 acres) to over 13 kg per hectare, making global averages unhelpful.
Critically, this global pesticide sales data does not capture actual pesticide use or impacts.
The Pesticide reality
Based on 2019 data from ICAC, cotton accounts for 4.71% of all pesticides sales globally and within this, it accounts for 10.24% of all insecticide sales. Cline is quick to expand by saying that this insecticides percentage “doesn’t differentiate between toxic or non-toxic”, and is therefore “not shorthand for harmful insecticides”.
One of the major calls to action of the case study, says Cline, is the demand for public access to pesticide data: “We don’t know what pesticides are being used on cotton, and whether they are persistent or not”. Lanfranchi added that “the USDA publishes information on the use of pesticides” (if not data on specific usage levels and types) and highlighted that “Australia has a transparency issue” related to pesticide usage. She calls for the industry to “co-invest in making this data public”.
In summary, this cotton misinformation series reveals that a significant challenge of reporting the impacts of cotton farming and production is data gaps and variations in data collection and methodologies. The researchers found that the single most objective, complete, and current source of data related to the cotton industry is held by ICAC, but that the biggest gaps are related to pesticide use. The reason? Because pesticide usage data is either not reported, or privately owned, and costs an unfeasible amount of money to access for single stakeholders.
Regenerative Cotton and Pesticide use
Another facet pesticide use and management that is becoming increasingly topical is regenerative cotton farming through farm-level optimization of not just pesticides, but every facet of soil and land management. But “regenerative farming is meaningless without farm-by-farm primary data that is verified under a robust and harmonized system of measurement around soil health, carbon sequestration, biodiversity” according to Crispin Argento, Managing Director at The Sourcery. Again, filling gaps and ensuring robust collection and handling of data are at the heart of understanding and responding to cotton farming impacts; More on regenerative cotton farming practices and impacts in my upcoming articles.
The Transformer Foundation case study presents how and why data misinformation occurs and the damage it does, highlighting the threat to the tens of millions of people in the supply chain relying on cotton for their livelihoods. It is also true that millions of people are at the mercy of the toxic effects of pesticides, along with wildlife and ecosystems—but the nature of this threat is withheld due to “silenced data” and therefore the impacts are not known, analyzed or debated in the public sphere. This stark reality reinforces that ecological and biodiversity safeguarding, and ultimately climate change, are social justice issues at the mercy of opacity in global textile supply chains.
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