Thursday 27 December 2012

Part 2: Pesticides; Chapter 2: Benin

Benin is a West African nation. It’s sandwiched between Nigeria in the east and Togo in the west. It’s highly dependent on cotton—the crop accounts for 40% of the country’s GDP. It’s no surprise, then, that many Beninese are involved in cotton production.

Modachirou Inoussa is a young Beninese. Although he’s only eight years old, he’s already helping his parents in the cotton fields. One day, Modachirou runs back to his home, feeling thirsty. Finding nothing to drink, he sets off to look for his parents. Along the way, he finds an empty container. He picks it up, scoops some water, and has a drink. Modachirou does not return home that evening. A search party later finds his body next to a pesticide container—the same container used to quench his thirst.

Issaka is another Beninese. He’s an adult with four children, aged between six and eight. One August day, Issaka treats his cotton field with pesticide. After a hard day’s work, he returns to his home. He then does a curious thing: he leaves his work clothes on the roof. His action suggests that he’s aware of the dangers of pesticides—he’s keeping his “poisonous clothing” away from his children. Alas, Issaka’s precautionary measure fails him. It rains that night; and the water passes through his clothes and drips into his household vessels. The next day, his children drink from the vessels. Several minutes later, they begin to experience headaches, nausea and convulsions. They are urgently sent to a health centre where they are treated with Diazepam, glucose serum and oxygen. The treatment is, however, ineffective. All four of the children pass away within the next 20 hours.

What you’ve just read are true stories. They’re heartbreaking. And they’re not confined to Benin. Moreover, such poisoning-related deaths affect not only children but also adults. Every year, up to 77 million cotton workers suffer from pesticide poisoning—and thousands eventually die.

Will you not do something to help?

Note: You can learn more about the situation in Benin by watching these videos:

Friday 14 December 2012

Part 2: Pesticides; Chapter 1: Pesticides 101

99% of the world’s cotton is conventionally grown. This fact has serious implications for you and for me.

You see, conventional cotton farming allows the use of synthetic agrochemicals, some of which are very harmful. This post is about pesticides, a type of agrochemical.

Pesticides are substances used for destroying insects or other organisms harmful to cotton. There are three major pesticide classes: Insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. You will note that all these words end with the letters “cides”. Whenever a word ends with these five letters, that particular word is connected with killing. Sure enough, insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill weeds, and fungicides kill spores.

Is there a problem with the killing? Well, there isn’t any if the chemicals kill only pests. Unfortunately, they don’t.

Check out the protective gear: Pesticides are harmful

They can kill humans: A single drop of aldicarb, the second most-used insecticide in global cotton production, is enough to kill an adult.

And they can kill in more ways than one. For example, the improper disposal of unused or expired pesticides and the use of empty pesticide containers for other purposes (e.g. drinking) have caused the deaths of humans, including children.

In short, pesticides are dangerous. Yet they are being used excessively. Cotton occupies only about 2.5% of the world’s farmland but is responsible for the release of 16% of the world’s insecticides—far more than any other single crop. In 2010 alone, more than 3 billion US dollars worth of pesticides were used on conventional cotton. What’s shocking about these chemical applications is that nearly half of them (in value terms) are toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation. These facts have earned cotton the epithet “the world’s dirtiest crop”.

Sadly, there’s a big human cost to pesticide use. Every year, up to 77 million cotton workers suffer from pesticide poisoning; some eventually perish.

In our next post, we will tell you a couple of stories that took place in a country called Benin. They’re tragic. And they will make you think long and hard about pesticides. 

Thursday 6 December 2012

Part 1: GMOs, Chapter 3: Hope

India is facing a suicide crisis. The circumstances are dark. Yet no situation is ever hopeless. As someone has said, “out of difficulties grow miracles.”

Hope by Radu Dan
A number of non-governmental organisations, both local and foreign, are taking steps to address the crisis. Their solution: Organic cotton farming.

Organic farming is often badly misunderstood. It’s not a throwback to the good old days, doing things our grandfather’s way. Granted, it’s similar in some respects to traditional farming. For example, organic farming strictly prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds and synthetic agrochemicals, both relatively recent inventions. Despite the similarities, there are substantial differences. Organic farming is knowledge-intensive and supported by current and solid science. To maximise crop quality and yield, organic farmers have to understand issues like soil fertility and insect life. So the NGOs are transferring organic agriculture know-what and know-how to the Indian farming community.

With zero GMOs and agrochemicals, organic cotton farming can help save lives. What’s more, it can give farmers a better quality of life.

But the NGOs can’t achieve their objectives alone. We have to “help” them. You see, someone’s got to buy the organic cotton produced by the farmers. That’s us consumers. In fact, the more we buy, the more farmers the NGOs can persuade to switch to organic farming. 

We’re nearing the end of the year. For some of us, it’s time to make New Year’s resolutions. We hope that buying and wearing organic cotton clothing will be one of your goals for 2013.

The environmentalist Anna LappĂ© is spot on: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

So what kind of world do you want? Will you give hope to the farmers of India in 2013? 

Monday 26 November 2012

Part 1: GMOs, Chapter 2: The “Bitter Seeds”

A cotton farmer rides a brand new motorcycle home. His children are thrilled: “Dad, Dad, is it ours?” Their excitement, however, dissipates almost instantaneously. “Will it still be around next year?” they glumly add. The farmer proudly declares: “Next year, it’ll be a car!”

That’s a scene from a real Indian TV ad. To us, motorcycles and automobiles aren't a big deal—they’re everywhere. But things are different in rural India. In that part of the world, they’re luxuries. Which means the farmer in the ad has made it. And he’s confident he’ll make it big time the following year.

If you’re poor and desperate and you see that ad or something similar, chances are you’d want to try whatever the ad’s offering. That’s exactly the outcome—thousands upon thousands of farmers have bought genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, the subject of the advertisement. In fact, the marketing of GM seeds has been so effective that today, a multinational biotechnology company is said to control 95% of India’s cotton seed market, and more than 80% of the country’s cotton-growing areas are grown with GM cotton. But do the seeds really work?

A bag of cotton seeds
Photo courtesy of Thamizhpparithi Maari

Seeds are seeds. They alone can’t guarantee a good harvest. Other success factors, such as water and soil fertility, are essential. Indeed, the product literature states that the seeds can deliver the desired results only if they are protected by expensive pesticides and watered and fertilized according to precise timetables. But many of the GM seed customers can’t afford to do that. They’re smallholders with rain-fed fields (i.e. no irrigation). Furthermore, GM seeds are non-renewable. They are sterile by design. Which means the farmers must renew their supply every year. An old-timer tells Manjusha Amberwar, the aspiring journalist in the previous chapter: “We saved seeds in our farms. There was never a question of paying for the seeds.”

The reality is this: India’s big, wealthy farms can succeed with GM seeds; the resource-poor majority can’t.

But nobody told the impoverished and illiterate farmers that. They’re only told a dream. They’re not told its true cost. And in the pursuit of their dreams, many smallholders go heavily into debt. And when dreams and reality collide, casualties are inevitable. The farmer-suicide crisis in the previous chapter is a case in point.

Can the farmers return to traditional farming, using non-GM seeds? It’ll be difficult. Because of the predominance of GM seeds, the public and private sectors have mostly withdrawn from the production of non-GM seeds. As a result, there is now a critical shortage of conventional seeds. Today, in communities like Manjusha’s, it’s practically impossible to buy anything but GM seeds.

Is the situation then completely hopeless? No, it isn't. Stay tuned to find out where hope can come from.

Monday 19 November 2012

Part 1: GMOs, Chapter 1: Manjusha

Manjusha Amberwar is an 18-year-old girl. She’s from Telung Takli, a tiny and remote village in Vidarbha. Known as the “White Gold Belt of [the Indian state of] Maharashtra,” Vidarbha is a key cotton production area.

Manjusha’s dream is to become a journalist. Her family are, however, against it. They say she’s not following tradition. But Manjusha’s mind is made up. She believes she has a mission, which is to tell the world about the farmers’ predicament. She adds: “Three farmers in my village killed themselves…I’m investigating why they did it.”

The suicides are part of a larger crisis. In August 2012, the Indian Parliament was told that there were 290,740 farmer suicides during 1995 – 2011. That translates into 17,102 suicides per year. At one point during that time, it got as bad as one suicide in every 30 minutes.

The situation is simply tragic. Which is why Manjusha feels compelled to tell the farmers’ stories. But something else is also driving her—her father was one of the many Indian cotton farmers who have committed suicide.

Manjusha (left) and her family

The suicides are, however, a rather recent phenomenon. An old-timer informs Manjusha: “In my time, there were no suicides. Even poor people could survive by working hard.”

So something must have changed. What is it?

In the course of her investigation, Manjusha discovers that her village no longer employs traditional agricultural practices. One big change is the cotton seeds. Specifically, the villagers are now using genetically modified cotton seeds.

But why did they change? And are the seeds linked to the suicides?

Stay tuned to find out.

Note: You can learn more about Manjusha by viewing the award-winning documentary, Bitter Seeds. The trailer is available at

Monday 12 November 2012

Welcome to

Hello. Thank you for visiting

Although it’s called “The Cotton Story”, our blog is really about people. Real people. People whose lives have been impacted by cotton production. The impacts can be deadly. And you should know about them.

But first, you should know that cotton is the world's most important natural fibre. Nearly 60% is used as yarn and threads in a wide range of clothing, including underwear and undershirts. This translates into an industry that is worth many billions of dollars. Without a doubt, you and I love to wear cotton, pure or blended.

Second, you should know that 99% of the world’s cotton is produced conventionally. Conventional cotton production allows the use of toxic and persistent synthetic agrochemicals (e.g. insecticides and herbicides) and genetically modified cotton seeds. It is the use of those things that is producing the harmful impacts, whether directly or indirectly.

Through our posts, you will find out what those impacts are. You will also discover what people on and off the farms are doing to address them. Finally, you will learn what you can do to help minimize or eliminate them.

We hope you will continue with us on this journey.

Team Nukleus