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Cotton farmers cannot afford safety equipment for using with pesticides
Cotton and Death
Damien Sanfilippo, Cotton Project Officer at Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN-UK) tells us of his realisation about the Cotton Industry.

Seven months ago I had never heard of Organic Cotton. “Organic Cotton! Can you eat it?” was, I must confess, my first thought when, for the first time, I saw the word 'Cotton' associated with 'Organic'. An hour later, having read PAN UK’s material on the issue, I felt ashamed about my level of ignorance and angry as well. I felt that, as an environmental scientist, I should have known the disastrous environmental impact of the Cotton Industry. I suddenly remembered an advert I saw several years ago when living in the US: “Cotton, the fabric of our lives…”. I had been intentionally mislead in thinking that cotton was a natural and fantastic fabric. No wonder why most consumers in the North have no idea that the chemical-intensive cotton cultivation is, nowadays, synonymous with death.

Made in the UK - Dursban B has been linked to many deaths and accidents in Benin
In high school I wanted to be a chemist. I loved chemistry, especially because it helps understand what we will never be able to see: how nature works at the most elementary level. I soon started working on projects aiming at developing environmentally-friendly alternatives to solvent-based products, which do not release any VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds, a major source of atmospheric pollution). I realised that environmentally-friendly alternatives exist, but are often ignored by the chemical industry. If the industry is not forced to change the way they do business, they just don’t bother. As a result I decided to study environmental sciences instead.

Working in the field of conservation, I quickly became aware of how environment and development issues are always closely related. During a six month mission in Africa it became all too clear. This is why I was thrilled when, on my return to Europe, I was given the opportunity to join Pesticide Action Network UK and coordinate the cotton project. In no other field is the link between environmental protection and development of the poorest countries so obvious.

Before converting to organic, Evelyne Atekokale suffered miscarriages caused by pesticide poisoning
PAN UK has been working for over 15 years with cotton, assessing its negative impacts on the global environment and the health and livelihoods of farmers. In the early nineties, PAN UK helped create pilot projects in Africa for the development of a more sustainable cotton agriculture. We now know that, not only cotton can be grown in a much more sustainable manner, it can even be grown organically, with surprisingly good results. Some farmers, in Africa, India and South America are able to obtain higher yields than their conventional neighbours. It makes us wonder why more pesticides are used on cotton than on any other crop. For some farmers in West Africa, the cost of chemicals is equivalent to 60% of their meagre income. Who benefits from this system? Where do the chemicals come from? The answer is pretty obvious.

The benefits of organic cotton are spectacular and wide-ranging: higher farmer income through reduced input costs, better health, increased food security and better food quality, dramatically improved biodiversity (flora, micro and macro-fauna, agro-diversity) and the evident hope of safer, uncontaminated water supplies. The list is too long to be described here in detail. Another striking benefit is the long-term restoration of the most valuable capital of any civilization: soil fertility. Loss of natural resources, and especially soil fertility, is one the most plausible explanation for the apparently mysterious collapse of some of the greatest civilizations, from the ancient Mesopotamians to the Mayas. Soil fertility and structure, especially in Africa, is being devastated by chemical-intensive agriculture.

The village of Mangassa, Benin is now entirely organic
These are very exciting times in the world of organic cotton. The demand for organic cotton has been higher this year than ever before. New surveys soon to be published will show a dramatic and constant increase in world production for the last three years. Cotton farmers from all over the developing world are expressing their wish to catch the train. While international trade distortions will take years, if ever, to be solved at the WTO; while international initiatives to transform cotton production (United Nations, WWF, etc…) will probably take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to achieve some results if any, UK consumers have a powerful tool to make a difference in this world: their consumer power. Choosing to buy organic cotton is, in my opinion, more efficient than giving money to environmental or development charities.

Check out PAN UK’s New Cotton Website at the end of April. Tailored towards consumers, it will provide the most exhaustive retail guide to Organic Cotton, a consumer guide to Organic, “eco”, and Fair Trade standards and many more resources. >

With great thanks to Simon Ferrigno, PAN-UK, for allowing us to use his photographs for this article.
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