Cotton – environmental impact
Cotton is a popular material in the textile industry and the most used natural fiber for manufacturing cloth for our clothes. It accounts for 33% of all fibers used in textiles and is one of the world’s top cash crops5. Humans have applied the versatile natural fibre to many uses, from fashion to home furnishing and industrial applications.
Cotton production employs over 250 million people globally6. The crop is the most popular, profitable, non-food crop in the world even though it occupies only about 2.5% of the world’s arable land3. In developing countries growing cotton employs around 7% of their total workforce.
Cotton cultivation is important to the economy; however, it is costing the planet. Below are some ways the cotton plant is affecting the environment.
Carbon emissions from cotton production amount to around 220 million metric tons yearly7. Regular cotton uses a considerable amount of synthetic fertilizers, which release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Other unsustainable practices like deforestation and heavy chemical use also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
Cotton is water-intensive as a crop and in manufacturing. About 2,700 liters of water are needed to produce a single cotton t-shirt. That is enough drinking water for an individual for two and a half years. Dyed cotton fabrics look great, but dyeing fabrics consume about 5 trillion liters of water every year worldwide. About 20,000 liters of water is needed to produce a kilogram of cotton fiber.
Some say that cotton is the largest user of water resources out of all agricultural commodities. In most situations, this demand is unsustainable.
The cotton plant needs a lot of water to thrive and produce a profitable yield. Cotton cultivation accounts for about 69% of the textiles industry’s fiber production water footprint. In Central Asia, the Aral sea faced a crisis that depleted its surface water resources to almost 10% of its original volume. This happened primarily due to cotton farmers diverting the seawater for irrigation. The Aral sea disaster is one of the most severe climate disasters known to humans. Cotton’s water thirst also affected the Indus River, with about 97% of its waste going towards irrigating cotton fields.
In many other places, they channel surface and ground waters to irrigate cotton fields. This practice has caused water loss through evaporation and poor management, and soil erosion.
The World Economic Forum stated that water scarcity is one of the top 10 problems the world may face in the next ten years. According to a report by the soil association, two-thirds of the world’s population may have to endure water shortages by 2025.
Soil degradation and erosion
Cotton farms are usually monocultural. And as with monocultural systems sustained for decades, the soil quality suffers degradation. The global area devoted to farming cotton has been more or less constant over the last 70 years. However, exhaustion has led to expansion into new areas. The expansion directly causes deforestation and wildlife habitat loss.
There is also a high risk of topsoil erosion as tree cover is absent in those farms. Erosions can lead to sediment build-up to a level that is dangerous to aquatic life. Research has proven that high sedimentation in streams and rivers can reduce the density of marine organisms like invertebrates and fish. It can also cause water temperatures to rise and reduce its oxygen.
Chemical use in cotton-growing also harms the soil. It hinders the ability of the soil to filtrate water and sequester carbon while damaging natural soil fertility.
Cotton farming pollution
Cotton farming, the conventional way, uses a lot of harmful chemicals to control pests and boost production. The heavy use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers harms the environment over time. These toxic chemicals also threaten human health, wildlife, water, and soil.
Cotton uses 24% and 11% of the world’s insecticides and pesticides, respectively. It also uses 4% of the world’s artificial phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers4. In the US, cotton is the third crop with the most pesticide use. In 2017, about 48 million pounds were used in growing cotton. Experts estimate that cotton consumes 8 million tonnes of synthetic fertilizers and 200,000 tonnes of pesticides globally every year.
Out of the top ten pesticides used in cotton farming in 2017, glyphosate, diuron, and tribufos are considered human carcinogens. The rest are potential endocrine disruptors and toxic to bees.
Farmers and people who live close to heavily polluted cotton farms may suffer health injuries caused by toxicity. Glyphosate, in particular, can cause genetic damage and congenital disabilities1.
Scientists have recovered significant amounts of glyphosate in the air and water around the Mississippi River area. According to the FDA, The chemical has also been found in many foods. This is evidence of the mobility of agricultural chemicals from the point of use into the environment.
Sometimes the clothes and fabric made from chemical-intensive cotton cultivation have traces of pesticides in them. This is a potential health hazard, especially for people with sensitive skin.
Cotton production pollution
Brightly colored or pristine white cotton appeals to consumers, but many people are unaware of the environmental costs. The fashion industry accounts for around 20% of industrial water pollution. All the dyeing, bleaching, and various chemical treatments cotton goes through contributing to that figure. Run-off wastewater from production contains pesticides, toxic dyes, chlorine, and other chemicals used to process the crop into fiber and clothing. These pollutants enter into water systems like rivers, lakes, wetlands, and underground aquifers and contaminate them.
Pollution from processing cotton into clothes or fabric for industrial use can affect humans as much as it affects wildlife and the environment.
To increase productivity and profitability, scientists genetically modified some cotton species to have certain qualities. Some of the qualities of genetically engineered cotton include insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.
GMO cotton has been widely accepted all over the world. About 90% of GMO cotton is grown in China, Argentina, Mexico, the United States, Paraguay, Australia, India, Pakistan, and South Africa.
GMO crops may produce high yields, but some types of genetically modified cotton are not great for the environment. In 2017, 10 farmers in the US sued the agricultural biotech company Monsanto. The farmers claimed that the company’s dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybean crops led to the inevitable, illegal spraying of dicamba herbicide—this extremely volatile herbicide which is prone to drifting, resulted in crop damage and pollution.
The intensive use of inappropriate insecticides to grow cotton has caused at least 40 weed species to develop resistance to glyphosate. It has also allowed some lepidopteran insects to develop resistance to the protective genes in Bt cotton. There is also a risk of genetically modified gene transfer to wild crops