Pick Your Cotton Carefully!

We farm workers are closest to food production. We were the first to recognize the serious health hazards of agriculture pesticides to both consumers and ourselves – Cesar Chavez

Agricultural fibers are any type of plant or animal that is raised as a crop for growing fibers for textile manufacture.  This includes: cotton, hemp, linen, jute, flax, wool, cashmere, leather and all variations of cotton.  Plant fibers are made of woody cellulose substances and are often referred to as cellulosic fibers. Some of the fibers are part of the transport system that carries water, minerals and waste products around the plant. The production of these fibers often relies heavily on the use of pesticides and other chemicals. In addition, the abundant use of water needed to cultivate some of these textiles is also an issue.  Genetically modified (GM) cotton crops are raised as an alternative to harsh pesticide use, although genetically modified cotton does not eliminate the use of pesticides and weed killers and has a damaging effect on biodiversity.

Industrial cotton takes a heavy toll on the environment:

  • Cotton is responsible for 16% of global insecticide use yet accounts for less than 3% of the world’s crops.
  • The average conventional cotton t-shirt uses almost half a pound of toxic chemicals in its production.
  • It takes 500 gallons of water to produce just one t-shirt made of conventional cotton. In some areas, conventional cotton is contributing heavily to water scarcity.

Seven of the 15 pesticides commonly used on cotton in the United States are listed as “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency. And cotton defoliants are “the most toxic farm chemicals currently on the market,” says Fawn Pattison, executive director of the Agricultural Resources Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the use of harmful pesticides.

Cotton (83%) is one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world which includes soy (89%), canola (75%) and corn (61%). GMO cotton production ranks ninth in global crop production.

On an average, 90 percent of U.S. cotton in 2010 was genetically engineered, according to a USDA survey. However, 95 to 98% of all cotton is now genetically engineered in nine of the eleven cotton producing states surveyed. (Source USDA Economic Research Service, July 1, 2011.) The Huffington Post recently posted an excellent blog with more information and commentary on the issue.

SCP- The Sustainable Cotton Project is an internationally recognized California-farm based program dedicated to changing the way cotton, one of the world’s most widely traded commodities, is farmed and marketed. SCP is connecting growers, manufacturers and consumers to develop a Cleaner Cotton supply chain in California’s productive Central Valley. Founded in 1996, SCP works with innovative growers to produce a high-quality fiber without using the most toxic pesticides and herbicides in agriculture.

SCP claims the results of their farming practices are profound. A Cleaner Cotton™ grower:
• Focuses on biologically based practices to manage pests
• Avoids the 13 most toxic chemicals used in cotton production in California.
• Uses 50-73% less chemicals than other cotton farmers in the same region (Fresno, Merced and Madera counties).
• Uses non-genetically modified seed, ensuring diversity of seed for the future.

Conventional cotton follows chemically based production practices, and more than 70 percent of conventional cotton in California is grown with genetically modified seeds.  Cleaner Cotton™ is non-GM. SCP is doing a good work by helping farmers reduce the use of pesticides in cotton and in turn saving the environment.

CottonConnect is another company working towards creating solutions to problems related to cotton crop and water consumption. CottonConnect, a social enterprise working with office is UK, China and India, states that they worked with 130,000 farmers and increased the land under sustainable cultivation by almost 300,000 acres. Their website mentions “On average, we have helped to reduce the water usage of the farmers we have worked with by 20% (but in many cases as much as 30% to 60%)”. CottonConnect is working to connect retailers to the supply chain and to cotton farmers, creating relationships, transparency and efficiency, delivering business value, reducing costs and building security of supply. We need more companies like CottonConnect to come up and think and look out of the box to fight major environmental and health related problems.

For consumers who are willing to pay a little more for their T-shirts and jeans, however, there is a better way. Organic cotton, grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or defoliants, is becoming more widely available. “Organic cotton is just as good as conventional cotton,” says Lynda Grose, a fashion designer who co-founded Espirit’s E collection division and worked as a consultant for the Sustainable Cotton Project’s Cleaner Cotton Campaign. “The only difference is the chemicals.”

Buying organic cotton has several benefits, including helping to keep pesticides out of our food supply. Few people realize it, but only 35 to 40% percent of the cotton harvest is turned into cloth. The seed, which is crushed and separated into oil, meal and hulls, comprises nearly 60 percent. Cottonseed oil shows up in cookies, potato chips, marinades, salad dressings and many other processed foods. Cotton meal is given to both dairy and beef cattle as a high-protein feed supplement. The remaining 5 percent of the crop is “gin trash,” the leaves, stems and other residue left over when processing is finished. Sometimes fed to livestock, it can harbor high levels of pesticide residues.

Organically grown cotton is also better for the environment. Even properly applied pesticides can be dangerous to wildlife. Biologists estimate millions of birds die every year in the United States from the effects of agricultural chemicals sprayed on cotton and other crops. When runoff from a field contains high levels of pesticides, it can kill fish in nearby rivers and streams. In one well-documented 1995 case in Alabama, at least 240,000 fish were killed by runoff—even though local officials determined afterward that the pesticides had been applied legally.

When you buy organic cotton, you are investing in water conservation, cleaner air, better soil and farmer livelihoods. The price for organic cotton is therefore sometimes, but not always, higher. However, with demand on the rise, more choices will become available.

Caring for the world and the people we share it with is a life choice. Choosing organic cotton is part of this choice. In 2015, 26 million metric tonnes of cotton was produced globally, much of it for the apparel industry. Organic cotton makes up less than 1% of this. By choosing organic over conventional cotton you have the purchasing power to influence brands, manufacturers and even farmers. So let’s change this number and make a difference.

Organic cotton image: http://aboutorganiccotton.org/
Main image: Pixabay.com


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