Cotton is a difficult crop to grow: yields can be decimated by severe weather (both droughts and flooding) and it is particularly vulnerable to pest attacks. Globally, this crop covers just 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but uses 6% of the world’s pesticides (and 16% of insecticides), more than any other single major crop. These issues often combine to create disastrous economic, health and environmental consequences for many smallholder growers.
Thousands of cotton farmers and their families suffer from pesticide poisoning every year and many commit suicide as a result of debt related, at least in part, to high chemical costs.
Cotton farming is of marginal profitability for many small farmers. Some can earn less than two dollars a day from their cotton. They receive little support or training and yields are low. Smallholder cotton farmers spend up to 60% of their annual income on pesticides. Farmers buy agrochemicals on credit at the start of the season and often yields at the end of the season are too meagre to pay off these costs – just one bad harvest can tip a farmer into debt.
Pesticides are a major global killer. Nearly 1,000 people die every day from acute pesticide poisoning and many more suffer from chronic ill health, such as cancers and leukaemia, neurological diseases and reproductive problems including infertility, miscarriage and birth defects.
Pesticides are a huge drain on African economies and health services – the UN estimates that the health costs of pesticides across sub-Saharan Africa amount to an enormous US$4.4 billion a year, an amount almost equal to the total international aid assistance given to the region for health. A 2013 UNEP report concluded that the chronic loss of productivity caused by pesticide use diminishes Mali’s annual agricultural GDP per habitant by 50%.