Asian cotton farmers to learn integrated pest management

A 12 million-Euro project to enable small cotton farmers in Asia to cut their insecticide use by half and increase their production is to be implemented by FAO. The European Union-funded project will train 90 000 small cotton producers in integrated pest management (IPM). (Go to What is IPM?) Six Asian countries will participate in the project - China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Viet Nam - the first three are among the world's top four cotton-producing countries.

Cotton - a high-value crop
FAO/17720/A. Conti

Globally, more insecticides are used on cotton than on any other crop. In 1995, US$1.8 billion was spent on insecticides for cotton, 14 percent of the total US$12 billion spent on insecticides worldwide. Nearly 70 percent of the world's cotton-cropping area treated with insecticides is in China, India and Pakistan, making them major markets for the insecticide industry.

Insecticide sales for cotton reflect the fact that it is a high-value crop that farmers are anxious to safeguard from pest invasion, even at steep costs. Chemical insecticides are often used when farmers and their advisors are unsure about the health of a crop rather than when the pest situation actually merits chemical intervention.

Overuse of insecticides on cotton has had devastating effects on major producing countries in recent years. In 1995, in China, crop failure traced to excessive insecticide use pushed the New York Commodity Market price for cotton up over US$1.10 per pound for the first time in 100 years. In the Sudan, overuse of insecticides produced sticky cotton that was unmarketable. Insecticides also destroy natural enemies of pests, sometimes causing population explosions of the very pests they are sold to control. 

Insecticides threaten human health

Insecticides are not only expensive and potentially damaging to crops and the environment. They can also be extremely dangerous for people - especially poor farmers in tropical countries who may be unaware of the toxicity of the chemicals they are using, who cannot afford the necessary protective clothing and could not wear it anyway because of the heat. "Many of these insecticides are derived from nerve gases used in the Second World War," said Niek van der Graaff, Chief of FAO's Plant Protection Service. "They are poisonous to human beings as well as to pests." FAO has warned that chronic poisoning of rural populations is a real threat.

The EU project provides for 3 800 Farmers' Field Schools (FFSs). The schools use a participatory learning approach to educate farmers in IPM techniques. Farmers plant an experimental field and work in it, collecting and studying the pests and beneficial predators, and monitoring their interactions. They learn to recognize the different insects, how to ensure the build up of populations of beneficial predators and how to rotate and diversify crops as well as how to physically remove and destroy pests.

They also discover that insecticides often kill the beneficial insects and small mammals, leaving the field open for new generations of fast-reproducing pests to prosper. Pests may also rapidly develop resistance to overused insecticides.

Pilot projects financed by the Asian Development Bank in Pakistan, India and China have shown that cotton farmers reduced their use of insecticides and increased yields at the same time. "Reducing insecticide use saves money which can then be used to invest in the crop production system," said van der Graaff.

FAO started work on environmentally friendly production methods in developing countries in the 1960s, and the agency's IPM Global Facility now assists projects across Asia and in Africa.

9 June 1999

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