The cotton industry expanded dramatically in Central America after WW2, increasing from 20,000 hectares to 463,000 in the late 1970s. This expansion was accompanied by a huge increase in industrial pesticide application which would eventually become the downfall of the industry.
The primary pest for cotton production, bol weevil, became increasingly resistant to chemical pesticides as they were applied each year. The application of pesticides also caused new pests to appear, such as leafworms, cotton aphids and whitefly, which in turn further fuelled increased application of pesticides.
The treadmill resulted in massive increases in pesticide applications: in the early years they were only applied a few times per season, but this application rose to up to 40 applications per season by the 1970s; accounting for over 50% of the costs of production in some regions.
The skyrocketing costs associated with increasing pesticide use were one of the key factors that led to the dramatic decline of the cotton industry in Central America: decreasing from its peak in the 1970s to less than 100,000 hectares in the 1990s. “In its wake, economic ruin and environmental devastation were left” as once thriving towns became ghost towns, and once fertile soils were wasted, eroded and abandoned (Lappe, 1998).
Sources: Douglas L. Murray (1994), Cultivating Crisis: The Human Cost of Pesticides in Latin America, pp35-41; Francis Moore Lappe et al (1998), World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, pp54-55.