The risks of cotton farming- South Africa

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The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) expects global cotton hectares to decrease by about 2% to 33.4 million ha in 2018/19. With global cotton yields continue to remain near the 10-year average of 770 kg/ha, world cotton production is projected to decrease by 4% to 26 million tons in 2018/19. India is expected to remain the leader in area under cotton with a projected 11.9 million hectares, representing more than a third of all global cotton area. For India, this would represent a 2% decrease in area from the previous season where yields and production were down due to pink bollworm infestation.

These pesticides are washed out of soils, and pollute rivers and groundwater. Pests often develop resistance to pesticides that are used on a continuous basis. Furthermore, the chemicals eliminate not only pests but also their natural enemies. This interference with the ecosystem considerably reduces biodiversity and can result in pests that were previously not so important (secondary pests) becoming a major problem, as e.g. emerging in China.

If cotton is cultivated intensively, it requires large amounts of water for irrigation. This causes soil salinisation, particularly in dry areas and hence a degradation of soil fertility. The diversion of entire rivers into huge irrigation channels in Central Asia has led to the gradual drying-up of the Aral Lake, one of the largest inland waters in the world. It is estimated that 60% of irrigation water in Central and Southern Asia is lost before reaching cotton fields because of poor infrastructure .

Cotton production also contributes to climate change. Industrial fertilizers are produced using considerable quantities of finite energy sources (1.5% of the world’s annual energy consumption), releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the excessive application of nitrates to agricultural land leads to their being transformed into nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more destructive than CO 2 in terms of global warming. Finally, soils are important carbon sinks. Soil degradation seriously reduces their carbon sequestration capacity, thereby contributing to the greenhouse effect.

As far as the local outlook is concerned, the 9th estimate for the 2017/18 production year indicates a cotton crop of 195 805 lint bales for the RSA, an increase of 152% over the previous season and 2% up from last month’s estimate. Dryland and irrigation hectares show increases of 68% and 171% respectively over the previous year mainly due to the more favourable prices of cotton in relation to competitive crops but also due to renewed interest in cotton production.

As at the end of August 2018 there were 39 446 tons of seed cotton and 4 988 tons of cotton lint in stock at cotton ginners. Local cotton ginners produced 3 830 tons of cotton lint in August and sold 2 761 tons of cotton lint. Local cotton spinners consumed 1 771 tons of cotton lint in August 2018, down 13% from August 2017 (mainly due to the closure of the Swaziland spinning mill towards the end of last year) whilst 2 631 tons were in stock on 31 August 2018.

Cotton South Africa (Cotton SA) has become the first laboratory to be certified under the ICA Bremen ‘International Laboratory Certification Scheme’. Designed to raise the bar in the quality testing arena, the aim of the scheme is to establish an approved list of laboratories worldwide that meet a standard level of quality assurance. With our long standing history of classing and HVI fibre testing experience, we will endeavour to uphold the proud standard level of quality assurance within the international cotton environment as well as the aims and contract sanctity values of ICA Bremen.” Eleven laboratories are currently in the process of assessment. Once certified, they will become a ‘laboratory of choice’ to resolve quality disputes in line with the ICA Bylaws & Rules, as well as providing a service to the cotton industry.
Social risks

Conventional cotton production has a series of social and economic risks, especially for small farmers in developing countries. Many small farmers in the South fall ill or die due to a lack of adequate equipment and knowledge about how to handle pesticides properly.
Monoculture of cotton
Medical costs and an inability to work are a severe economic burden on affected families. The excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in monoculture causes soil degradation, reducing its nutrient and water retention capacity. As a consequence, farmers face declining yields and have to increase production inputs.

The resistance of some pests and the appearance of secondary pests only add to the problem. To pay for the increasing costs of farm input, small farmers are obliged to borrow from banks or cotton buyers.

However, a farmer’s income from his cotton harvest is often lower than the cost of the inputs due to low crop yields and market prices, driving more and more farmers into debt. As cotton is a cash crop, cotton farmers are highly dependent on volatile world markets. Growing only cotton reduces families’ food security, particularly in regions with unstable climatic conditions, since in bad years they are unlikely to have enough money to buy food.