Why India's famed cotton industry is under threat

The use of pesticides in the country's cotton production raises ethical questions

A worker selects cotton in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso March 7, 2017. Picture taken March 7, 2017. To match Special Report MONSANTO-BURKINA/COTTON    REUTERS/Luc Gnago
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A few weeks ago, Dnyanshwar Shende, a farmer in the cotton-growing district of Yavatmal in India, found himself hospitalised after spraying crops in his field for a couple of hours.

“My head started spinning and my vision started blacking out,” he says. “I lay down for a bit but that didn’t help. I was vomiting and I was very weak.”

There have been a spate of deaths and hundreds of farmers fell ill in Yavatmal, in the state of Maharashtra in western India, linked to exposure to their use of insecticides, mainly on cotton crops, bringing into focus the need for better safety standards and enforcement of regulations on pesticide manufacturers. Doctors at the Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College in Yavatmal reveal that the hospital has treated about 500 farmers and agricultural workers who have suffered inhalation poisoning from pesticides.

The issue has also led to calls for international retail chains, which use India's cotton in their garments, to do more to source their products ethically.

India is the world's largest producer of cotton and the second-largest exporter, producing 5.97 million tonnes in the financial year to the end of March 2017, according to figures from the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC). It forecasts that India's cotton production will rise to 6.2 million tonnes in the current financial year.

“A lot of pesticides, when they are used by farmers, they don't use protective equipment because they can't afford to buy masks and gloves, so many of them suffer bad health and some of them even die,” says Shishir Goenka, the founder of Fusion Clothing, a manufacturer based in Mumbai that uses organic cotton to produce garments for brands in countries including the UK, US and Australia.

He says there is growing interest in the ethical practices of retailers globally but that there is still a long way to go and brands should be far more concerned about sourcing policies. He adds that many are unwilling to pay a 20 per cent premium for organic, pesticide-free, cotton.

“There is a lot of interest from international brands and retailers for organic clothing because the consumers demand it now,” he says. “Everybody knows about the ill effects of climate change and the ill effects of using pesticides but some retailers do not want to pay more for organic, which means they squeeze the producers.”

Doctors at the hospital in Yavatmal say many farmers are illiterate and end up mixing different pesticides together, often at unsafe levels of concentration, citing this as a major factor behind the illnesses and fatalities.

“The majority of workers are not using the necessary precautionary measure and they're just tying one cloth around their mouth and they are eating without washing their hands while using pesticides,” says Manish Shrigiriwar, the dean of Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College. “The majority of pesticides don't have any antidote, so whatever pesticide we are selling, they must have some antidote and they should give protective kits to the farmers.”


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In many cases, pesticide use is reported to have been on cotton crops grown from genetically modified seeds to kill a pest called the bollworm – to which the crop is supposed to be resistant.

Mr Shrigiriwar says his hospital is highlighting an issue that is not unique to the district, but is also a problem elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, farmers are facing other challenges, too.

Farmers' issues have come into sharp focus in India, with other problems plaguing the broader sector and cotton farming in particular. There have been high rates of farmer suicides in the country, with Maharashtra having some of the worst rates.

Much of this is blamed on the fact that small farm owners in particular find it hard to turn a profit. Crop failure, often due to weather conditions, for example, can be devastating for farmers who regularly take out loans to buy seeds, pesticides and fertilisers.

The role of middlemen is also a major problem for farmers, as their profits get diluted because of the various layers of traders in the supply chain.

More than 50 per cent of India's population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and the sector makes up 17 per cent of the country's GDP.

Following protests by farmers, the state of Maharashtra this year launched a US$5 billion loan waiver scheme for the sector. Other states including Uttar Pradesh and Punjab also launched costly loan waiver packages to help relieve struggling farmers. These issues have become increasingly political, with key elections being held in the state of Gujarat this month and ahead of general elections in 2019.

But recently released data shows that 2,414 farmers took their lives in Maharashtra in the first 10 months of this year, bringing the success of the scheme into question.

“It's very difficult for us to make profits,”  says Ashok Kale, a cotton farmer. “All our costs are going up and the rates that we get for our crops are bad.”

Authorities in Maharashtra say steps are being taken to improve the situation for farmers, including when it comes to the use of pesticides.

There is an investigation into the matter being conducted by the state government and a panel it set up, has recommended that a couple of pesticide products be banned, including a brand called Police, manufactured by Gharda. The company did not respond to a request for comment. One executive at an Indian pesticides manufacturer, requesting anonymity, says that companies should do more to make sure that their products are used safely, but insisted that most pesticides were not harmful if used correctly.

"I think with all the initiatives we are taking, [farmer deaths from pesticide inhalation] will not happen next year," says Madan Yerawar, a minster of state for Maharashtra and the guardian minister of Yavatmal. He says it is compulsory for pesticide companies to provide masks and gloves with their products and that the local government has now also started handing out free protective kits. Pesticide companies are also being urged to go to the farms to train workers on how to use their products, he adds.

On their part, some international retailers say they are taking serious steps to make sure that they are being more proactive in the sourcing of their goods.

The high street fashion brand H&M for example says that 43 per cent of its cotton is sustainably sourced, and it is is aiming for all of it to be from sustainable sources by 2020.

Mr Goenka says the growing pressure from consumers on retailers to make sure the production process is more ethical means the demand for organic cotton is expanding rapidly, and Fusion Clothing is now seeing interest from new markets, including South America.

“We're trying to be as ethical as possible,” he says. “We became members of the ethical fashion forum in the UK and we have been supplying to top outdoor brands who look for organic clothing.

"Earlier people thought that only organic food was important to them, but now they realise it's the entire chain because clothing impacts farmers and the environment.”