Wherever it’s grown, unless produced according to sustainable practices, cotton production can present significant challenges, and in some parts of the world may be associated with high social, environmental and economic impacts.
Thanks to progress in the industry, these impacts have been reduced in recent years, and there are encouraging signs that this trend is continuing. However, significant issues remain.
The most common challenges for unsustainable cotton growing systems include:
Under poor management practices cotton can contribute to over-consumption of water, depending on where and how it’s grown. The global average water footprint of seed cotton is 3,644 cubic metres per tonne, the equivalent of nearly 1.5 Olympic swimming pools.
Various factors affect how much water is used, and how much pollution is generated. These include whether or not the cotton is rain-fed, irrigation methods used, which types and quantities of fertilisers and pesticide are applied, and soil types. Globally, we grow an estimated 60% of our cotton in irrigated fields and 40% under rain-fed conditions
Unless managed well, cotton production can use and pollute significant amounts of water. Irrigation farmers use groundwater and/or surface water, which, if not well managed or regulated, depletes freshwater resources, particularly in water stressed regions.
In cotton production, as with many crops, the use of fertilisers can cause eutrophication (enrichment of water with nitrogen), which in turn impacts drinking water sources for people, animals and aquatic life.
When not grown according to sustainable practices, cotton production can be an intensive user of pesticides and petroleum based fertilisers. While their use has reduced over recent years, cotton currently uses 2.5% of the world’s arable land, yet 10% of all agricultural chemicals such as those in pesticides and fertilisers. In 2009 cotton producers accounted for 6.2% of total global pesticide sales and 14.1% of insecticide sales for all crops.
Pesticides and fertilisers, inappropriately used, can seriously pollute water sources and decrease soil fertility. They also can have significantly harmful effects on human health and biodiversity.
Fertiliser production and use can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
Over 60% of the world’s cotton is produced by smallholder cotton farmers, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the world. Around 90% of these estimated 100 million smallholder farmers live in developing countries and grow the crop on less than two hectares.
Many smallholder cotton farmers live below the poverty line, earning less for the sale of their cotton than they need to meet basic needs such as food, healthcare and tools.
Smallholder farmers often suffer high levels of debt, in part due to high input costs (such as pesticides and fertilisers). Along with other market factors, this can contribute to a perpetual cycle of poverty for many.
Sustainable cotton has the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty by providing a more stable income and improved working conditions. Cotton is an important rotation crop for smallholders, both for fibre, fuel and food (such as cotton seed oil) and the cash income it generates is vital to improved living standards.
The US Department of Labor reported in 2016 that child labour or forced labour existed in the cotton production process in 18 countries, including several of the top six producer nations (China, India, Pakistan, Brazil). In 2018 the USA banned import of cotton from Turkmenistan due to findings of state-enforced slave labour.
Encouragingly, recent improvements in labour rights have been reported in some areas, notably Uzbekistan, though more progress needs to be made.
Like other crops, cotton farming can lead to land clearing, soil erosion and contamination, and loss of soil biodiversity. Poorly managed soils can lead to the loss of soil fertility and declines in productivity.
Sustainable cotton production can improve soil health, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions through more sustainable practices.
With a world population set to rise to 9 billion by 2030, the increased demand for food, water and energy will challenge the feasibility of many crops, including cotton. Demand for food could rise by 40%, water by 35%, and energy by 50% or more, increasing the pressure to convert land use from fibres, such as most cotton production is, to food and fuel.
The area under cotton cultivation has been decreasing, in part due to improved yields and productivity. Average world cotton yields reached 780 kilograms of lint per hectare in 2013/14, up from 230 kilograms of lint per hectare in the 1950’s. There is potential for continued improvement in land use efficiency through better growing practices.
Even so, the quantity and quality of cotton will be increasingly affected by the impacts of climate change, as cotton growing regions experience more frequent floods, droughts and extreme heat and storms. This will present mounting difficulties across the entire supply chain of agricultural commodities, including cotton.
The price of cotton can be volatile, due to a range of factors such as national regulation, stockpiling, and government subsidies for farmers. This, combined with other factors, creates an uncertain market for farmers, which can make cotton a less attractive crop to grow.
The financialisation of cotton is a lesser-known issue significantly impacting the stability of cotton markets. Where these markets were once used to manage risk, they are now used in times of low returns in conventional stock markets and investments as a source of profit. This results in significant fluctuations in price and therefore instability in the cotton price farmers can realise at a given time, despite having no real connection to physical supply and demand.