Cultivation of tobacco
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In modern tobacco farming, Nicotiana seeds are scattered onto the surface of the soil, as their germination is activated by light, then covered in cold frames. In the Colony of Virginia, seedbeds were fertilized with wood ash or animal manure (frequently powdered horse manure). Coyote Tobacco (N. attenuata) of the western U.S. requires burned wood to germinate. Seedbeds were then covered with branches to protect the young plants from frost damage. These plants were left to grow until around April. Today, in the United States, unlike other countries, Nicotiana is often fertilized with the mineral apatite to partially starve the plant for nitrogen, which changes the taste of the tobacco.
After the plants have reached a certain height, they are transplanted into fields. This was originally done by making a relatively large hole in the tilled earth with a tobacco peg, then placing the small plant in the hole. Various mechanical tobacco planters were invented throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries to automate this process, making a hole, fertilizing it, and guiding a plant into the hole with one motion. The cultivation of tobacco usually takes place annually. The tobacco is germinated in cold frames or hotbeds and then transplanted to the field until it matures. It is grown in warm climates with rich, well-drained soil. About 4.2 million hectares of tobacco were under cultivation worldwide in 2000, yielding over seven million tonnes of tobacco.
Tobacco seeds are scattered onto the surface of the soil, as their germination is activated by light. In colonial Virginia, seedbeds were fertilized with wood ash or animal manure (frequently powdered horse manure). Seedbeds were then covered with branches to protect the young plants from frost damage, and the plants were left alone until around April.
In the 19th century, young plants came under increasing attack from certain types of flea beetles, Epitrix cucumeris or Epitrix pubescens, which destroyed half the U.S. tobacco crops in 1876. In the years afterward, many experiments were attempted and discussed to control the flea beetle. By 1880, growers discovered that replacing the branches with a frame covered with thin fabric effectively protected plants from the beetle. This practice spread, becoming ubiquitous in the 1890s.
Today, in the United States, unlike other countries, tobacco is often fertilized with the mineral apatite to partially starve the plant for nitrogen, which changes the taste. This (together with the use of licorice and other additives) accounts for the different flavor of American cigarettes from those available in other countries. There is, however, some suggestion that this may have adverse health effects attributable to the content of apatite.
Tobacco can be harvested in several ways. In the oldest method, the entire plant is harvested at once by cutting off the stalk at the ground with a sickle. In the nineteenth century, bright tobacco began to be harvested by pulling individual leaves off the stalk as they ripened. As the plants grow, they usually require topping and suckering. "Topping" is the removal of the tobacco flowers while "suckering" is the pruning out of leaves that are otherwise unproductive. Both procedures ensure that as much of the plant's energy as possible focuses on producing the large leaves that are harvested and sold. "Cropping," "Pulling," and "Priming" are terms for removing mature leaves from tobacco plants. Leaves are cropped as they ripen, from the bottom to the top of the stalk. The first crop of leaves located near the base of the tobacco stalk are called "sand lugs" in more rural southern tobacco states. They are called "sand lugs" because these leaves are close to the ground and get splashed with sand and clay when heavy rains hit the soil. Sand lugs weigh the most, and are most difficult to work with. Their weight is due to their large size and the added weight of soil; slaves lugged each stack to the "stringer" or "looper," typically a female slave, who bundled each stack of leaves. Eventually workers carried the tobacco and placed it on sleds or trailers.
As the industrial revolution approached America, the harvesting wagons that transported leaves were equipped with man powered stringers, an apparatus that used twine to attach leaves to a pole. In modern times large fields are harvested by a single piece of farm equipment, though topping the flower and in some cases the plucking of immature leaves is still done by hand.
Some farmers still use "tobacco harvesters." They are not very efficient yet highly cost effective for harvesting premium and rare strains of tobacco. The harvester trailers for in-demand crops are now pulled by gasoline fueled tractors. "Croppers" or "primers" pull the leaves off in handfuls and pass these to the "stringer" or "looper," which bundles the leaves to a four-sided pole with twine. These poles are hung until the harvester is full. The poles are then placed in a much larger wagon to be pulled by modern farm tractors to their destination. For rare tobaccos they are often cured on the farm. Traditionally, the slaves who cropped and pulled had a particularly tough time with the first pull of the large, dirty, base leaves. The leaves slapped their faces and dark tobacco sap, which dries into a dark gum, covered their bodies, and then soil stuck to the gum. There was one perk however: nicotine in tobacco acts as a powerful insecticide. Slaves could enjoy a bug free day of forced labor when harvesting tobacco. The croppers were men, and the stringers, who were seated on the higher elevated seats, were women and children. The harvesters had places for one team of ten workers: eight people cropping and stringing, plus a packer who moved the heavy strung poles of wet green tobacco from the stringers and packed them onto the pallet section of the harvester, plus a horseman. Interestingly, the outer seats were suspended from the harvester - slung out over to fit into the rows of tobacco. As these seats were suspended it was important to balance the weight of the two outside teams (similar to a playground see-saw). Having too heavy or light a person in an unbalanced combination often resulted in the harvester tipping over especially when turning around at the end of a row. Water tanks were a common feature on the harvester due to heat and danger of dehydration.
Production of tobacco leaf increased by 40% between 1971, during which 4.2 million tons of leaf were produced, and 1997, during which 5.9 million tons of leaf were produced. According to the Food and Agriculture organization of the UN, tobacco leaf production is expected to hit 7.1 million tons by 2010. This number is a bit lower than the record high production of 1992, during which 7.5 tons of leaf were produced. The production growth was almost entirely due to increased productivity by developing nations, where production increased by 128%. During that same time period, production in developing countries actually decreased. China’s increase in tobacco production was the single biggest factor in the increase in world production. China’s share of the world market increased from 17% in 1971 to 47% in 1997. This growth can be partially explained by the existence of a high import tariff on foreign tobacco entering China. While this tariff has been reduced from 64% in 1999 to 10% in 2004, it still has led to local, Chinese cigarettes being preferred over foreign cigarettes because of their lower cost.
Every year 6.7 million tons of tobacco are produced throughout the world. The top producers of tobacco are China (39.6%), India (8.3%), Brazil (7.0%) and the United States (4.6%).
Around the peak of global tobacco production there were 20 million rural Chinese households producing tobacco on 2.1 million hectares of land. While it is the major crop for millions of Chinese farmers, growing tobacco, is not as profitable as cotton or sugar cane. This is because the Chinese government sets the market price. While this price is guaranteed, it is lower than the natural market price, because of the lack of market risk. To further control tobacco in their borders, China founded a State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) in 1982. STMA control tobacco production, marketing, imports and exports and contributes 12% to the nation's national income.
In Brazil around 135,000 family farmers cite tobacco production as their main economic activity. Tobacco has never exceeded 0.7% of the country’s total cultivated area. In the southern regions of Brazil, Virginia and Amarelinho flue-cured tobacco as well as Burley and Dark (Galpao Comun) air-cured tobacco are produced. These types of tobacco are used for cigarettes. In the northeast, darker, air-cured and sun-cured tobacco are grown. These types of tobacco are used for cigars, twists and dark-cigarettes. Brazil’s government has made attempts to reduce the production of tobacco, but has not had a successful systematic anti-tobacco farming initiative. Brazil’s government, however, provides small loans for family farms, including those that grow tobacco, through the Programa Nacional de Fortalecimiento da Agricultura Familiar (PRONAF).
India has 96,865 registered tobacco farmers and many more who are not registered. Around 0.25% of India’s cultivated land is used for tobacco production. Since 1947, the Indian government has supported growth in the tobacco industry. India has seven tobacco research centers that are located in Madras, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Mysore,bangalore, West Bengal, and Rajamundry. Rajahmundry houses the core research institute. The government has set up a Central Tobacco Promotion Council, which works to increase exports of Indian tobacco.
Problems in Tobacco Production
The International Labour Office reported that the most child-laborers work in agriculture, which is one of the most hazardous types of work. The tobacco industry houses some of these working children. There is widespread use of children on farms in Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malawi and Zimbabwe. While some of these children work with their families on small family-owned farms, others work on large plantations. In late 2009 reports were released by the London-based human-rights group Plan International, claiming that child labor was common on Malawi (producer of 1.8% of the world’s tobacco ) tobacco farms. The organization interviewed 44 teens, who worked full-time on farms during the 2007-2008 growing season. The child-laborers complained of low pay, long hours as well as physical and sexual abuse by their supervisors. They also reported suffering from “green tobacco sickness,” a form of nicotine poisoning. When wet leaves are handled, nicotine from the leaves gets absorbed in the skin and causes nausea, vomiting and dizziness. Children were exposed to 50-cigarettes worth of nicotine through direct contact with tobacco leaves. This level of nicotine in children can permanently alter brain structure and function.
Families that farm tobacco often have to make the difficult decision between having their children work or go to school. Unfortunately working often beats education because tobacco farmers, especially in the developing world, cannot make enough money from their crop to survive without the cheap labor that children provide.
The cultivation of tobacco is economically detrimental to the countries that produce it, especially those that are still developing. When resources are put into tobacco production, they are taken away from food production. Large amount of firewood, that could be used domestically for fuel and heating, are instead used for the curing of tobacco. A large percent of the profits from tobacco production go to large tobacco companies rather than local tobacco farmers. Also many countries have government subsidies for tobacco farming. Major tobacco companies have encouraged global tobacco production. Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco each own or lease tobacco manufacturing facilities in at least 50 countries and buy crude tobacco leaf from at least 12 more countries. This encouragement, along with government subsidies has led to a glut in the tobacco market. This surplus has resulted in lower prices, which are devastating to small-scale tobacco farmers. According to the World Bank, between 1985 and 2000 the inflation-adjusted price of tobacco dropped 37%
Tobacco production requires the use of a large amount of pesticides. Tobacco companies recommend up to 16 separate applications of pesticides just in the period between planting the seeds in greenhouses and transplanting the young plants to the field. Pesticide use has been worsened by the desire to produce bigger crops in less time because of the decreasing market value of tobacco. Pesticides often harm tobacco farmers because they are unaware of the health effects and the proper safety protocol for working with pesticides. These pesticides as well as fertilizers, end up in the soil, the waterway and the food chain. Coupled with child labor, pesticides pose an even greater threat. Early exposure to pesticides may increase a child's life long cancer risk as well as harm his or her nervous and immune systems.
Tobacco is a crop that leeches nutrients, such as phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium, from the soil at a rate higher than any other major crop. This leads to dependence on fertilizers. Some of the mineral apatite in Florida used to produce phosphate for U.S.A. tobacco crops contains uranium, radium, lead 210 and polonium 210 and radon.  The radioactive smoke from tobacco fertilized this way is deposited in lungs and releases radiation even if a smoker quits the habit. The combination of carcinogenic tar and radiation in a sensitive organ such as lungs increases the risk of cancer. If the smoker also breathes in the asbestos fibers which commonly occur in urban and industrial environments, the risk of cancer is greatly increased.
The wood for the curing of tobacco, leads to deforestation. While some big tobacco producers such as China and the United States have access to petroleum, coal and natural gas, which can be used as alternatives to wood, most developing countries still rely on wood in the curing process. Brazil alone uses the wood of 60 million trees per year for curing, packaging and rolling cigarettes. Deforestation is a factor in flooding, decreased soil productivity and general climate change.
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- Two Hu T-W, Mao Z, et al. “China at the Crossroads: The Economics of Tobacco and Health”. Tobacco Control. 2006;15:i37–i41.
- Three Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Issues in the Global Tobacco Economy.”
- Four International Labor Office, Bitter Harvest: Child Labour in Agriculture (Geneva, 1997); and ILO, Child Labour, Targeting the Intolerable (Geneva, 1996).
- Five ILO. International Hazard Datasheets on Occupations: Field Crop Worker
- Six UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children 1997 (Oxford, 1997); US Department of Agriculture By the Sweat and Toil of Children Volume II: The Use of Child Labor in US Agricultural Imports & Forced and Bonded Child Labor (Washington, 1995); ILO Bitter Harvest: Child Labour in Agriculture (Geneva, 1997); ILO Child Labour on Commercial Agriculture in Africa (Geneva 1997)
- Seven Shoba, John and Shailesh Vaite. Tobacco and Poverty: Observations from India and Bangladesh. Canada, 2002.
- Eight The Wall Street Journal. Health Conscious India wants alternate to Tobacco farming. 2008
- Nine High Level Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor. “Report from South America.” 2006.
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- Eleven World Health Organization. Tobacco Epidemic: Much More than a Health Issue.” Geneva: 1997.
“International Cigarette Manufacturers,” Tobacco Reporter, March 2001
- Thirteen Rowena Jacobs, et al., “The Supply-Side Effects Of Tobacco Control Policies,” in Tobacco Control in Developing Countries, Jha and Chaloupka eds., Oxford University Press, 2000.