In June 2013 on the website of the German newspaper – appeared publication signed by Philippe Wagnitz (expert WWF) tittled”Thirsty Cotton”. The entire article is an example of manipulation of the facts, and making false accusations based on false information and misinformation. The only question is, whether it is just ignorance or bad will.




“Hammad Naqi Khan, WWF-Pakistan director for freshwater, climate and toxics.


Thank you for the acknowledging that cotton is “not a bad crop.” Nevertheless, the damage being done to demand for cotton through interviews, speeches, publications, and videos that demonize cotton is great. Cotton depends on consumer preference to overcome price and technical advantages held by synthetic fibers, and interviews that distort, exaggerate, condemn by innuendo, and rely on information decades out of date undermine the livelihoods of millions.

The term “thirsty” is a subjective characterization of cotton that has no basis in objective evaluation. People are thirsty, watermelons are thirsty, cotton is thirsty. Describing cotton as “thirsty,” saying that cotton causes “dramatic consequences for nature,” or saying, “cotton is a product of sin,” is irresponsible.

Cotton is a drought-tolerant crop with a taproot that can reach deep for water. Cotton is grown in arid regions because it can be grown in such conditions; regions are not arid because cotton is grown there. Cotton uses less water per dollar value of production than grains and oilseeds, and cotton provides an economic yield even in years of drought and alternative-crop failure. This is why cotton is grown in arid and semi-arid regions in the first place. Indeed, water is applied to cotton in arid and semi-arid regions because it is precious. In regions where water is abundant, like the Netherlands, other crops are grown. Cotton accounts for 3% of world agricultural water use, proportional to its share of world arable land.

Cotton does not dry out lakes and rivers. In the history of world cotton production, there has been exactly one example of adverse ecological impact on a major water system associated with cotton production, and that is the Aral Sea. The destruction of the Aral Sea occurred during the 1950s and 1960s in the former Soviet Union. That single incident forms the basis of many ongoing marketing-driven criticisms of cotton by NGOs seeking donations, retailers seeking market advantage and advocates of organic, Fairtrade and Cotton made in Africa who need to demonize cotton to justify their own inefficiencies. The Aral Sea was destroyed by mismanagement innate to the Soviet agricultural system, not by the water requirements of cotton. The reason the Aral Sea example is used repeatedly by those who wish to demonize cotton is because they have no other example to use, and that example is now 50 years old.

Cotton is not cultivated on the border between Mexico and the USA, and there is no irrigation for cotton production drawn from the Rio Grande. The Darling Downs and Murray River Basins in Australia were recently AT FLOOD STAGE. Stream flows were reduced during some years of the last decade because of drought, not because of water draws associated with cotton production. Water is highly regulated within Australia by both state and national governments, and agricultural water use that threatens environmental harm is prohibited.

Cotton does not, and probably never did, account for one quarter of world pesticide applications. For calendar year 2011, cotton accounted for 6.7% by value of all pesticides used worldwide, including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and other crop protection chemicals. This is down from 11% of all pesticides used worldwide in 1986.

In 2011, cotton accounted for 4.4% of all herbicide use, 14.8% of all insecticide use, 0.9% of all fungicide use, and 14.4% of other chemicals used in crop protection. The use of pesticides in cotton production peaked in the 1980s and has been declining for several decades. Cotton researchers and farmers are now better informed about the damaging impacts of overuse of pesticides in agriculture. The rising costs of pesticides is encouraging reduced use. Better application technology allows farmers to apply pesticides precisely, thus reducing exposure. And, the use of biotechnology (GMO) in cotton has allowed farmers to maintain yields while reducing pesticide use.

It is curious that Mr. Wagnitz is aware that cotton accounts for 2.4% of world arable land. That statistic is calculated and published by the ICAC Secretariat, meaning that Mr. Wagnitz is familiar with the ICAC and our publications. However, he ignores ICAC publications on pesticide use.

“About 6.4 billion cubic meters of water are hiding in the cotton products that are bought in Germany during one year.” What does that mean, and how can this information be useful other than serving to demonize? Water used in agricultural production, whether green or blue, is not destroyed via use, and it does not “hide” in clothing. All water used in agriculture returns to the environment to be used again. Water is used in cotton production because that is its highest and best economic use within a particular catchment area. If there were a higher-valued use for water than cotton in any water system, usage would shift accordingly. For example, one-third of all cotton production in the United States occurred in the states of Arizona, California and New Mexico in the mid-1980s. Today, just 7% of U.S. cotton production is in the Far Western states because of shifts in cropping patterns linked to water use.

Thank you again for taking the time to respond to my concerns about WWF and the world cotton industry. I will appreciate your efforts to address these concerns systemically among the worldwide network of WWF personnel. (I would appreciate it if you would forward this to Mr. Wagnitz.)


Terry Townsend

Executive Director


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