Chinese Cotton Crisis Fueled by Pesticides
December 23, 1993
China's production of cotton has decreased in recent years
and will almost certainly continue to fall, due to losses to
the cotton bollworm Heliothis armigera, and the rising costs
of chemically-intensive production. This decline is
significant due to the important role that cotton plays in
China's export-oriented textile industry.
According to extension agents and researchers in Hebei
Province, an important cotton growing region south of
Beijing, farmers continue to rely on pesticides even though
they must now use increasing amounts for the same level of
control due to pest resistance. The cotton bollworm has
become so resistant to pyrethroids that the government
restricts farmers to one application per season.
Organophosphates are the most commonly used class of
pesticides used against the bollworm. Parathion, for
example, is frequently used despite being classified by the
Chinese government as "severely restricted." By the end of
the cotton season, some farmers apply organophosphates with
backpack sprayers as often as three times per week.
Protective clothing is rarely used.
The increasing use of pesticides is making cotton production
economically impossible. Farmers in Hebei can expect gross
cotton sales to bring in roughly US$400 per acre, but
pesticides for that same acre cost about US$150. When other
costs such as fertilizers and labor are added, most farmers
can no longer make a profit. As a result, more and more
farmers are refusing to grow cotton and are switching to
corn, soybeans and vegetables, or giving up farming to seek
higher paying jobs. Because China relies on cotton
production for its textile industry, many researchers
speculate that the government will raise cotton prices with
subsidies. This would allow farmers to continue pesticide-
intensive methods for a time, but does nothing to encourage
them to get off of the pesticide treadmill.
Attempts to implement integrated pest management (IPM) for
the cotton bollworm in the region to date have failed due
early season use of pesticides for other pests and diseases
(which kills beneficial insects), and the very small size of
privately owned fields, which makes coordination difficult.
Extension agents seem unsure of how to modify farmer behavior
in the face of free market reforms. In the past, the
government had considerable control over what farmers grew
and what pest control methods were used. Farmers now make
decisions based on free market prices, and extension agents
must find ways of making farmers see personal advantages to
Source: Interviews with Qian Chuanfan, Department of Applied
Agricultural Chemistry, Beijing and Zhu Zhiyu, Department of
Plant Pathology, Hebei Agricultural University, Baoding,
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