Cotton is one of the most intensely sprayed crops grown.The fact that it’s not a food seems to change perceptions of what’s permissible. I’ve seen cotton farmers with containers of pesticides on their back walking the fields spraying crops for hours. I’ve seen the little shacks that sell lead arsenic and other chemicals that Agatha Christie might have used in a Miss Marple plot. I’ve seen the fields devoid of birds and their song.
In the 1960s and 70s much of the world decided that if we wanted to increase agricultural production pesticides were the answer. It moved from small holders using crop rotation with food for their own family to larger land holdings employing many workers and producing just one crop (mono-agriculture) for cash. Pesticides were used largely without restraint. When I visited an organic project in Egypt they told me that one year under President Nasser 63 million tonnes of chemicals were sprayed across vast swathes of Egypt from light aircraft.
Of course, for a time it seemed to work but then initial gains in crop yield started to dissipate as the chemicals became less effective and the mono-agriculture impacted on soil fertility. And the high cost of pesticides soon altered the financial equation for farmers.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, written in 1962, laid bare the real consequences of this approach for the environment.
Done properly organic agriculture is a joy to behold. Good bugs and traps are used to catch the bad bugs. Natural fertlisers and manure are used and sensible crop rotation keeps nutrients in the soil. Farmers are normally organised in co-operatives so they support each other.
Organic farming is not the easy option. It requires careful planning and hard work, and farmers still lead a precarious existence but few who convert to organic consider returning to chemical based agriculture. More farmers would convert to organic but they need to be able to sell their organic cotton as organic rather than back into the conventional market, where they get a lower price. So all that is needed is for more farmers to convert is for more of us to choose organic.