The risks of cotton farming

The rewards from cotton have discouraged farmers from growing it

Guest column: Peter Makwanya

Even in the advent of massive textile influx from China and second-hand clothes from other countries, cotton farming is still regarded highly in Zimbabwe.

While cotton production has declined over the years due to volatile world markets, cotton companies in Zimbabwe have embarked on a vigorous marketing drive, coupled with incentives too. The once flourishing sector is being revived once again, with foreign suitors from China and India, in the background, greasing the palms of the Zimbabwean markets.

Cotton farmers continue to be sweet-talked. The crop, popularly known as white gold is back with a bang. As cotton buyers stumble upon each other, trying to outdo each other, they have never sufficiently talked about one most fundamental aspect and they wish that, forever and ever, it remains a secret. These are the effects of cotton chemicals on the health and well-being of the farmers, the majority who are rural-based hence, they lack education, awareness and, above all, and everything else, they lack resources.

While it is also a given that cotton farming placed Zimbabwe on the world map, a number of things have since changed. These are the fast-changing climate, the market dynamism, awareness is improving and the farming attitudes and methods have since changed as well.

As a result of these, related discourses continue to unfold, these are smart farming, organic farming, resilience and eco-farming, among others. While all these things have changed and other new pointers continue to emerge, the health and well-being of yester-year farmers, including the current ones, has been compromised and no one seems to care much, even those that are in danger, life goes on.

Businesses, through their callous and deceptive nature, continue to embark on aggressive cotton marketing strategies and hoodwinking farmers, as if nothing is the matter. When stakeholders in cotton farming came to Zimbabwe they invaded the cotton farming landscapes, poisoned and harmed the environment, then disappeared without compensating anyone. Even if the stakeholders were in a position to compensate, nobody came forward to raise concerns about the effects of their chemicals.

Ethically, what businesses and cotton markets did and are still doing is morally wrong and potentially disastrous. Both business and environmental ethics have been thrown into the dust bin. Land use, poisoning of water bodies with chemicals, together through inhaling, leakages and skin contact, have all damaged the environment and placed the lives of farmers at risk.

From the environmental point of view, ethics can be defined as a discipline that analyses issues regarding people’s moral obligations to future generations with respect to the environment. A deeper analysis on the conduct of cotton companies reveals that they pay lip service or have a palliative approach to the fundamentals of ethical considerations. By failing to adhere to environmental ethical obligations, they have also failed, not only themselves, but in their ethical business practices. Cotton companies cannot claim to be ethical if they violate the basic rights of farmers, ignore health, safety and environmental standards. These are the issues that have a heavy bearing on the sustainability of livelihoods of the farmers they claim to have at heart.

For centuries, cotton companies have been quietly pocketing huge profits from exploiting the unsuspecting rural farmers. The question is: For how long are they going to play tomfoolery with farmers? For how long are they going to continue deceiving farmers with their glib? Research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, United Nations Environment Programme and World Health Programme, provides a shocking account that between 1% and 3% of agricultural workers around the world suffer from acute pesticide poisoning, with at least one million requiring hospitalisation each year.

These figures equate to between 25 million and 77 million farmers around the world.

The other area of pesticides use that is becoming risky is the horticulture. This sector also needs to take heed, regardless of the small amounts of chemicals they use. But why cotton? The reason is that cotton amounts to 16% of global pesticide release; more than any other crop in the world. Cotton farming is also considered the “dirtiest” due to the heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous type of pesticides to human and animal health.

Zimbabwe is one of the 16 African countries that use not “extremely hazardous”, but “highly hazardous” cotton chemicals. It is, therefore, clear that there are people suffering from chronic effects of long-term pesticide exposure, which include impaired memory and concentration, severe depression and confusion. This is long-term in the sense that, toxic agro-chemicals first applied 50 years ago now pollute the country’s land, air, food and drinking water.

Women and children, who mostly participate in cotton cultivation, are prone to dangers of pesticides. Hazardous cotton pesticides are known to contaminate rivers and are a threat to fresh water resources. About 99% of the world’s cotton farmers live and work in developing countries, where there are low levels of safety awareness, no access to protective apparatus, illiteracy and chronic poverty. Zimbabwe, because of its status as a country “that is failing to develop”, can be classified as part of the 99%. It is common knowledge that cotton farmers often store pesticides in their bedrooms or near foodstuffs. As a result, reports of suicide cases have appeared in the media.

Events of the past cotton marketing seasons, where farmers got a shocking raw deal from cotton companies, which announced buying prices when cotton was overdue for sale, is not sustainable. Buying prices should be announced in advance so that farmers, who intend growing cotton may, do so out of choice and economic considerations.

Cotton farming is a high-risk job which is very exploitative. During the last farming season thousands of poor rural farmers worked for little, or no reward at all.

Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his own capacity and can be contacted on: