Cotton; The Dirtiest Crop In The World

Jenny investigates the cultivation of Cotton and its history with regard to chemical practices. Jen suffers from allergies specifically related to chemicals found in common cleaning products and clothes so has an especially keen interest in what has impacted on her entire life.



From its initial cultivation in the Indus valley and South America in 3000 BC, up until the 1950’s, global cotton production occurred predominantly without the use of hazardous agrochemicals. For some years cotton pests were controlled by agricultural management and tillage practices. Pest cycles were taken into consideration before planting and at harvesting, crop rotations were used, and cotton was planted at lower densities to reduce the impact of pest populations.


Soon after the Second World War, global cotton production changed dramatically when a number of newly discovered neurotoxin chemicals – such as DDT – were first introduced as an alternative means of pest control. Perceiving these chemicals to be a cheaper alternative to the use of labour and machinery, cotton farmers began to use these and former methods of pest control were largely abandoned.

In Britain in the 1960’s many people still made their clothes at home. Mothers made the families clothes or they were purchased from the tallyman. Popular shops for ladies clothes in the 60’s were Marks and Spencer, C & A, the Co-op or Lewis’s. More up-market places to shop for clothes were department stores and labels such as Mary Quant and Ossie Clark. For men it was era of the made-to-measure suit. Most people went to Burton’s or John Collier.


The bulk of pesticides associated with global cotton production are targeted at insect pest populations. Indeed, insecticides account for almost 60% of all agrochemicals applied to cotton worldwide. From the perspective of human health this statistic is highly significant, as many insecticides act by impairing biological processes such as the nervous and reproductive systems – which are common among all animals; including humans.

In total the world’s cotton farmers apply US$ 1,310 million of insecticides to cotton each year, far more than is applied to any other single crop worldwide – including maize, rice, soybeans and wheat. Despite accounting for just 2.5% of global cropland, cotton in responsible for the release of 16% of global insecticides (by market share). While it is difficult to obtain comprehensive global data on the application of hazardous pesticides in world agriculture, the fact that cotton outstrips all other major crops in terms of insecticide applications supports the view that cotton has become the world’s ‘dirtiest’ agricultural commodity.


For many millions of cotton farmers living and working in the developing world, hazardous pesticides form the root cause of substantial environmental and human suffering. Lacking the fundamental skills, knowledge and equipment necessary for the safe handling of pesticides, these agricultural labourers are causing substantial harm to themselves, their communities and their environment in their attempt to grow cotton – an enterprise that brings many into direct contact with some of the most toxic agrochemicals in the world. In many cotton growing regions, acute poisoning has become a common phenomenon, with entire families at risk of contamination through pesticide drift and contamination of drinking water and food sources.


Greenpeace International’s investigation report, “Toxic Threads – The Big Fashion Stitch-Up,” covers tests on 141 clothing items and exposes the links between textile manufacturing facilities using hazardous chemicals and the presence of chemicals in final clothing products.

Major fashion brands are turning us all into fashion victims by selling us clothes that contain hazardous chemicals that contribute to toxic water pollution around the world, both when they are made and washed,” said Yifang Li, senior toxics campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.

The textile industry continues to treat public waterways as little more than their private sewers. But our fashion doesn’t have to cost the Earth: Our clothes don’t have to be manufactured with hazardous chemicals,

Tests at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at Exeter University in the UK and at independent accredited labs found hazardous chemicals in clothing from 20 well-known fashion brands. The tests were conducted on jeans, trousers, t-shirts, dresses and underwear designed for men, women and children.

Hazardous pesticides on your clothing get into your blood stream through your skin and by inhalation. The story is even worse when you think about children’s clothes. Children’s skin is more sensitive and infants breathe two to three times as often as an adult.

If you have found this interesting and want to know more, you can find out more information here:

If you want to know what YOU can do to help, check out our recent blog: What can you do as a consumer to clean up cotton to see what you can do to help clean up the world, our environment and help our own bodies and skin.

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