How Conventional Cotton Farming Impacts Women's Health

by: Well Made Clothes Staff | 3 years ago | News

Image: a Chinese cotton picker working in the field. Image source

It is certainly no secret that conventional cotton farming is harmful for the planet. For starters, these crops take up a fairly small percentage of the world’s land (an estimated 2.4%) and account for a disproportionately large percentage of the world’s toxic chemicals. According to the latest figures from the Cotton Advisory Committee (CAC), an estimated total 5% of pesticides and 14% of insecticides sold are destined for use on cotton. Which actually reflects a decline in some parts of the world, but still underscores the fact that there are far too many chemicals being used to produce our so-called ‘natural’ fibres. And not only are those toxins harmful for the environment, but they are also threatening human health and, in particular, that of women – as a recent study from the Pesticide Action Network UK demonstrates.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “poisoning is a significant global public health problem.” In 2012, WHO estimated that 193,460 people died worldwide from unintentional chemical (including pesticide) poisoning and most of these exposures were preventable. Even when deaths aren’t occurring, though, PAN’s report (Is Cotton Conquering Its Chemical Addiction) shows that human health is still being placed at risk. And this is particularly an issue when it comes to female reproductive health. Glyphosate, for example, is a herbicide that’s commonly used on cotton crops. This is despite the fact that it has been found to have “genotoxic effects and interaction with hormones have [also] been reported, as well as reproductive, developmental, immune and neurological effects.” Similarly, another common insecticide lambda cyhalothrin has also been “classified as an endocrine disruptor and can present reproductive toxicity.” 

As a result of these sorts of chemicals being used so broadly in conventional cotton farming today, women that live in and around the affected areas have been found to experience related reproductive issues. According to a study on organochlorine pesticides and female puberty in South Kazakhstan, for example, “increased concentrations of pesticides in the blood of women and girls living in cotton-growing regions is associated with delayed physical and sexual development, relatively late puberty, and reduced level of two specific hormones.” So if these are the known outcomes of chemicals commonly used for the production of cotton crops, then why are they still so widespread?

The answer is partly due to a lack of education surrounding these issues (both for farmers and for consumers), but it is also because it remains a cheaper alternative than farmers switching over to organic cotton. Fortunately, though, the PAN report shows that some cotton growing regions have finally begun to reduce their use of pesticides, while others are unfortunately travelling in the opposite direction, as they struggle to control secondary pests. Data collected in Brazil, for instance, shows that “in total, the volume of all pesticides sold for use on cotton crops almost tripled between 2000 and 2014”. And the situation is even worse in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, where 90% of all pesticides are used in cotton production. 

This proves that better education is still desperately needed now. In China, for example, poor farmer training this is often singled out as a “significant driver of misuse,” according to the PAN report and “farmers commonly exceed the suggested pesticide dosage just ‘to make sure’”. But better farmer education must also be met with increased awareness for brands and consumers as well. Yes, buying organic cotton might currently represent a slightly more expensive alternative, but if more brands and consumers insist on buying organic cotton, then the cost of producing those crops is likely to decrease. And I would argue that it’s a small price to pay, either way, for fibres that aren’t so devastatingly detrimental to people and the planet.

Via the Pesticide Action Network UK


If you want to help support sustainable farming, as well as improved human and planetary health, then you might like to shop some of our organic cotton selects:

This article reflects these values click to shop the value

This article reflects these values

Tap value for more information

Shop related categories