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Tobacco Growing: Myth and Facts

Myth: Tobacco growing is bad for the environment

ITGA Response:
There is no evidence that tobacco, above and beyond other agricultural crops, is responsible for long-term environmental damage in terms of either soil degradation or deforestation.
Soil degradation destroys the livelihood of growers. The fear of soil degradation is more than adequate incentive to employ the right techniques, to avoid damage to the land, which is the main asset of small-scale farmers. In fact, as tobacco is a particularly tough crop that can be grown in harsh conditions, the need for significant amounts of pesticide and fertiliser is actually reduced compared to other crops.
Deforestation is an agricultural problem and not a tobacco crop problem. Deforestation does occur in areas associated with Flue Cured Virginia Tobacco because wood is required for the drying of tobacco leaves. Other tobacco types like Burley are sun dried and so the link between the cultivation of the crop and deforestation is much weaker.
In regions where Virginia tobacco is cultivated, growers are working with industry stakeholders on reforestation projects to ensure that wood remains an available local resource for communities and agriculture. To give you an example, in Zimbabwe, tobacco merchants and tobacco growers established the Sustainable Afforestation Association (SAA). In a country where both agricultural land and the population are growing at a considerable rate, the incentives for tobacco growers to safeguard a precious resource are obvious and are helping to stimulate real action on the ground to address it. This is a model that other agricultural sectors could learn from.
Myth: Tobacco growing is bad for growers’ health

ITGA Response:
The only health risk that is unique to tobacco crops is green tobacco sickness which is caused by handling wet tobacco leaves. It can be avoided through basic avoidance measures like ensuring that skin is covered with long clothing or gloves before handling leaves or changing wet clothing after harvesting. The risk posed by green tobacco sickness can be minimised through education. Growing associations at a national level are working with public bodies and the tobacco industry to ensure that awareness is as high as possible. Fertilisers and pesticides are highly regulated substances that are authorised, on the basis of a governmental assessment that includes an analysis of health and environmental risks. Fertilisers and pesticides used in tobacco are also used in the cultivation of other crops and at a rate which is no higher, and in some cases lower, because of the unique resilience of the tobacco plant.
Crop rotation, an agricultural technique which is at the heart of organic farming because it prevents the build-up of pests and diseases, is widely practiced in tobacco farming. In a study on tobacco farming prepared for the World Health Organisation (WHO), the economist John Keyser verifies that ‘tobacco is almost always grown in a carefully planned rotation even by small-scale farmers’.
This helps to ensure that the need for the intensive use of pesticides is reduced.
Myth: Tobacco growing exacerbates poverty and contractual arrangements trap farmers in a vicious cycle of debt

ITGA Response:
Tobacco is a cash crop and the chief incentive for tobacco growing is that it is more profitable than most other crops. This is acknowledged in all relevant literature on the topic, including in studies commissioned by the WHO.
Given that tobacco growing profitability is undisputable, anti-tobacco groups have focused criticism on alleged exploitative practices of the contractual arrangements in tobacco growing.
Instead of focusing on improving the existing contract growing arrangements in tobacco, including as a model for other crops, anti-tobacco groups want to destroy it altogether.
This is contrary to the general trend of many other crops, where contract growing is seen as a way to address poverty and improve rural development.
- Give growers predictability regarding the agreed price/volume.
- Lower input costs for growers and promoting synergies (e.g. lower transportation and storage fees).
- Eliminate middlemen that don’t add value.
- Provide the basis for access to bank credit.
- Application of good agronomy practices that improve yields, improve quality and reduce labour requirements, resulting in higher income.
- Environmentally sustainable practices and alternative crops.
- Good labour practices, including health and safety, and prevention of problems such as child labour or forced labour.
Myth: Child labour is a particular problem in tobacco growing

ITGA Response:
Child labour is a problem in agricultural sectors across the developing world, a fact which is recognised by the International Labour Organisation, national governments and even anti-tobacco groups. However, tobacco growers believe that they should play their part along with other relevant stakeholders in tackling a complex issue.
For this reason, ITGA is one of the three founders and a Board member of the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing Foundation (ECLT) – a partnership between tobacco growers, leaf suppliers, the tobacco industry and the unions to tackle child labour. Save the Children and the International Labour Organisation are advisers to the ECLT.
Since its creation in 2001, the ECLT has funded and co-managed projects for the reduction and elimination of child labour in the Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda, Kirgizstan, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Guatemala.
As an example of its activity, ECLT commissioned projects in Malawi in various provinces have helped to reduce child labour from 57 percent to 19 percent between 2002-2011.
The current 54-month project is the largest social project ever run in Malawi by any organization, with an investment of 9 million USD. It is implemented by Save the Children Federation Malawi, Inc, Creative Centre for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM), Total Land Care (TLC), Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) on the Child Labour Elimination Actions for Real change project CLEAR.
Myth: Tobacco growing aggravates food security

ITGA response:
There is no evidence to support this assertion. Tobacco is often cultivated in poor and underdeveloped regions of the world but to conclude that this amounts to a causal link is simply incorrect and in fact the opposite is the case. In most tobacco growing countries, tobacco is grown by small- scale farmers who use only a fraction of their farm for tobacco, planting other crops, including food crops, along or in rotation with tobacco. The typical case is Brazil, the biggest tobacco exporter in the world, where, on average, less than one third of the total plot is used for tobacco.
Rather than threatening food security in impoverished regions of the world, where tobacco is grown it is safeguarding food security. This fact is supported by a 2012 study on tobacco production in Malawi, prepared by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
This study notes that tobacco is ‘the most important cash crop in the country’ accounting for ‘over 13 percent of Malawi’s Gross Domestic Product’ and ‘62 percent of total domestic export earnings’. The study states that tobacco crops are ‘of key importance for rural households’ incomes and food security’.
It is also not the case that tobacco is replacing food production in countries like Malawi. In fact, the same study underlines that there is not necessarily a link between increased production and land expansion.