The risks of cotton farming

Environmental risks

Cotton is mostly grown in monoculture and is a very pesticide-intensive crop. Although it is only grown on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6,8% of all herbicides used worldwide.

Lake Aral (1989-2003)
Lake Aral in 1989 and in 2008

These pesticides are washed out of soils, and pollute rivers and groundwater. Pests often develop resistance to pesticides that are used on a continuous basis. Furthermore, the chemicals eliminate not only pests but also their natural enemies. This interference with the ecosystem considerably reduces biodiversity and can result in pests that were previously not so important (secondary pests) becoming a major problem, as e.g. emerging in China.

If cotton is cultivated intensively, it requires large amounts of water for irrigation. This causes soil salinisation, particularly in dry areas and hence a degradation of soil fertility. The diversion of entire rivers into huge irrigation channels in Central Asia has led to the gradual drying-up of the Aral Lake, one of the largest inland waters in the world. It is estimated that 60% of irrigation water in Central and Southern Asia is lost before reaching cotton fields because of poor infrastructure (PAN UK, 2006). 

Cotton production also contributes to climate change. Industrial fertilizers are produced using considerable quantities of finite energy sources (1.5% of the world’s annual energy consumption), releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the excessive application of nitrates to agricultural land leads to their being transformed into nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more destructive than CO 2 in terms of global warming. Finally, soils are important carbon sinks. Soil degradation seriously reduces their carbon sequestration capacity, thereby contributing to the greenhouse effect.


Social risks

Conventional cotton production has a series of social and economic risks, especially for small farmers in developing countries. Many small farmers in the South fall ill or die due to a lack of adequate equipment and knowledge about how to handle pesticides properly.

Monoculture of cotton

Medical costs and an inability to work are a severe economic burden on affected families. The excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in monoculture causes soil degradation, reducing its nutrient and water retention capacity. As a consequence, farmers face declining yields and have to increase production inputs.

The resistance of some pests and the appearance of secondary pests only add to the problem. To pay for the increasing costs of farm input, small farmers are obliged to borrow from banks or cotton buyers.

However, a farmer’s income from his cotton harvest is often lower than the cost of the inputs due to low crop yields and market prices, driving more and more farmers into debt. As cotton is a cash crop, cotton farmers are highly dependent on volatile world markets. Growing only cotton reduces families’ food security, particularly in regions with unstable climatic conditions, since in bad years they are unlikely to have enough money to buy food.

Further reading:

Insect control costs declining as a share of cotton production costs, ICAC, 2013

ICAC, Pesticide use in coton in Australia, Brazil, India, Turkey and the USA, 2010

“From the plant to the T-Shirt" (Helvetas)

Fibre growers and buyers footprint calculator of the sustainable cotton project (US)

Pesticides in cotton, Rodale Institute


Current discussion

Access for registered members only

Upcoming discussions

 Any suggestion for a topic to discuss? Just get in touch with

Previous discussions

Summaries of online discussions held to be found in the library

Search database


No item all

This platform is a joint project by ICCO, SECO, Textile Exchange and HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation. For any queries please contact: [email protected].