Organic cotton: As important as organic food

by Kathleen Dombek-Keith

This article was originally published in November 2009

socks & feet

(November 2009) — When you think about supporting organic agriculture and choosing sustainably produced products, don’t forget cotton — the world’s most important non-food crop.

Cotton’s fibers and byproducts are used in a wide range of products, from textile goods and personal care products to cooking oil.

Non-organic cotton is considered the world’s “dirtiest” crop by the Environmental Justice Foundation because it uses 16 percent of total insecticides — more than any other crop. Insecticides are designed to affect biological systems that are similar in both animals and people, making them the most hazardous pesticides to human health.

Three highly hazardous insecticides (determined by the World Health Organization) rank in the top-10 most commonly used in cotton production. Aldicarb, cotton’s second-best-selling insecticide, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin.

The developing world is home to 99 percent of all cotton farmers and produces 75 percent of the world’s cotton, so it bears the brunt of cotton’s environmental and health impacts. In India, up to 10 percent of pesticide applications result in three or more reported symptoms related to pesticide exposure.

Consumers also potentially are exposed to pesticides. The cottonseed hull, where pesticide residues have been detected, is a secondary crop sold as a food commodity.

As much as 65 percent of cotton crops end up in our food, whether directly through cottonseed oil, which accounts for eight percent of edible oil, or indirectly through the milk and meat of animals that are fed cotton field trash.

Genetically engineered (GE) cotton has built-in pesticides, intended to reduce pesticide applications. However, cotton is plagued by so many pests that farmers can end up using just as many pesticides to combat secondary pests not targeted by the GE trait.

Data shows that in the United States, GE cotton has reduced the use of insecticides but has increased the use of herbicides. The increase in herbicides also is greater than the reduction in insecticides (although the insecticides displaced were nastier).

Non-organic cotton production can use almost a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers to yield one pound of raw cotton. Nitrogen, cotton’s most common fertilizer, is a major contributor to increased nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, which are 300 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

Cotton also is a water-intensive crop, so fields in arid climates must be irrigated, which can cause desertification.

The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake, is now a quarter of its original size due to heavy irrigation for Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and is predicted to dry up in less than 15 years if significant actions are not taken.

Studies show that organically managed soil holds water better so it doesn’t need as much.

The organic advantage

Unlike non-organic farming, organic growing methods work with nature to achieve an ecological balance without the use of chemical controls and genetic modification. Organic farmers use natural predators and intercropping to control pests and special machinery to control weeds.

Natural fertilizers, such as compost and animal manures, recycle the nitrogen already in the soil, reducing N2O emissions. Natural fertilizers plus crop rotation keep the soil healthy so it retains water better and erodes less.

Cotton products made with organic fibers may not be easy to find and are more expensive, but the reasons to choose organic fibers are just as important as choosing organic foods. In 2007 organically grown cotton comprised only 0.15 percent of total cotton production, but it increased five-fold in the four years prior due to growing consumer demand.

Let’s keep that demand growing and help convert as many cotton fields to organic as possible!

Kathleen Dombek-Keith earned a master’s degree in apparel design from Cornell University, and her thesis, “Re-Fashioning the Future: Eco-Friendly Apparel Design,” recently was published. She currently is the product developer at Maggie’s Organics.

  1. Allwood, J. M., Laursen, S. E., Rodriguez, C. M. de, & Bocken, N. M. P. (2006). Well dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge, Institute of Manufacturing.
  2. Chaudhry, M.R., (2007, March 6-8). Biotech applications in cotton: Concerns and challenges. Paper presented at the Regional Consultation on Biotech Cotton for Risk Assessment and Opportunities for Small Scale Cotton Growers (CFC/ICAC 34FT), Faisalabad, Pakistan.
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  4. Kramer, S. B., Reganold, J. P., Glover, J. D., Bohannan, B. J. M., & Mooney, H. A. (2006). Reduced nitrate leaching and enhanced denitrifier activity and efficiency in organically fertilized soils. PNAS, 103 (12), 4522-4527
  5. Lauresn, S. E., Hansen, J., Knudsen, H. H., Wenzel, H., Larsen, H. F., & Kristensen, F. M. (2007). EDIPTEX: Environmental assessment of textiles. Danish Environmental Protection Agency, working report 24.
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