I totally get it – it’s not like anyone is going to be eating the cotton but in truth there is unfortunately reason for a big fuss when it comes to the material your bedding and clothes are made of. To understand why organic cotton or even hemp material is the way to go, we need to start briefly with the grim story of conventional cotton.
Conventional cotton is one of the most toxic crops in the world. A staggering 25% of the world’s pesticides and 10% of the world’s synthetic fertilisers are used to grow cotton which covers under 3% of the world’s farmland. It takes 150 grams of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers to produce enough cotton for just one t-shirt. Defoliants, fungicides and herbicides are also used in large quantities. Most of these chemicals are classed by the World Health Organisation as moderately hazardous or highly hazardous because they can lead to cancer, birth defects and nervous system disorders. These are sprayed onto crops, either by air contaminating the soil, people, animals and water in the surrounding areas, or by hand, endangering the health of the farmer.
But how did it get to this? Good question.
For centuries, the cotton plant grew happily in arid zones in America, Africa, Asia and Australia. It was a perennial shrub, drought tolerant and relatively immune to pests. However, the increasing demand for cotton has led to the development of a seed that can be grown anywhere in the world, as far north as the Ukraine and as far south as Argentina. In so doing, the cotton plant has been weakened and made vulnerable to the bugs and diseases from which it has no natural immunity. To save the crop, the plants are sprayed with pesticides which, at the same time, also destroy the beneficial organisms which feed on the insects harmful to the plant. Over time, these insects develop a resistance to the pesticides so more toxic sprays need to be applied more frequently, pushing up the production costs. Ironically, for many cotton farmers the price of pesticides constitutes over 50% of the value of the crop and they find themselves faced with ever increasing debt.
- “In the Indian province of Andhra Pradesh, 80 cotton farmers committed suicide between June 1997 and January 1998 by drinking the pesticide which they were using on their cotton crop.” – Organic Cotton – From Field to Final Product – Edited by Dorothy Myers & Sue Stolton
Today the cotton seed is treated with insecticides and fungicides before it is planted, and the ground is prepared with fertilizers and pre-emergent herbicides. In many instances, as the seed is planted, additional insecticides are applied. As the cotton grows, more insecticides and growth regulators are applied and herbicides are used to destroy competing weeds around the plants. Finally, at the end of the growing season, the plants are sprayed with defoliants to prepare them for harvesting.
As a result of this poisonous cocktail, all organic life and all nutrients in the earth are destroyed so all the nourishment the plant needs for growth has to be brought to it – hence the requirement for massive doses of synthetic fertilisers. Because the soil is poisoned, no other crops can be grown. This is especially significant in Africa, Asia and Latin America where food crops are essential to feed local communities. Because the soil contains no organic matter, it doesn’t hold water, so this once drought-tolerant plant needs a vast amount, often in areas where water is in short supply. The contaminated water runs into, and pollutes, the local system. Take for example the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, once the world’s 4th largest inland sea. This has shrunk to 80% of its capacity because its water has been used to irrigate locally grown cotton. The water that runs back into the lake is now so toxic that no fish can live in it.
And finally, because cotton is grown as a fibre it is not regulated as a food crop. But in fact most of the cotton plant does end up in our food chain. By weight, 60% of the weight of harvested cotton is seed which is pressed into oil and used in processed foods, such as chips and many biscuits. Cotton straw, cottonseed meal and cotton waste is fed to chickens, beef and dairy cows.
Organic cotton on the other hand has been grown from non-genetically modified seed and in a pesticide free environment.
All these environmental and social concerns have led to the development of organic cotton which starts with untreated and non-genetically modified seeds. The soil is enriched by organic fertilisers and crop rotation which helps feed the local communities and its livestock, as well as providing a secondary crop for the farmers. Organic matter in the soil helps absorb and retain moisture so the plant requires far less water and the water that does run into local water systems is clean. Beneficial insects are introduced to eat the harmful bugs that attack the cotton plant, and sometimes trap crops are used to lure insects away from the cotton. Weeding is done by hand or by hoe, and defoliation prior to cotton harvesting is left to a seasonal freeze or achieved by water management.
Organic cotton farming is a total win-win situation. It encourages biodiversity, is great for the farmer who doesn’t have to spend a fortune on chemicals, who can work in harmony with nature and who can come home at the end of the day and immediately hug his children.
But the story doesn’t end with the harvested cotton. It ends with the finished product- the t-shirt or shorts or baby sling. It is in the finishing process that there are other big differences between the organic and conventional cotton industries. Before cotton can be dyed, it has to be bleached. Conventional cotton is bleached with chlorine which is carcinogenic and which doesn’t dissipate; organic cotton is bleached with hydrogen peroxide which is harmless and breaks down to water and oxygen. Conventional cotton dyes usually contain heavy metals and are heavily water dependent and water polluting, while organic cotton uses low impact fibre reactive dyes which contain no harmful chemicals and which require very little water, 90% of which is recyclable. Conventional cotton is finished with formaldehyde to make it wrinkle free and this remains in the fabric. Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical which gives off a gas at room temperatures. It can cause skin irritations, headaches, breathing difficulties and even nose and throat cancer. So it’s not so great that it ends up in our clothes, let alone those of our children!
The last point to make is that organic cotton production goes hand in hand with social responsibility right to the final product. Not only does the organic cotton farmer get a fair price for his cotton, but the cotton products are made in factories which are obliged to conform to strict fair labour practices where workers get a decent wage for their labour so they can support their families and communities. All our products, for example, are currently made in India and our mill and factories offer medical benefits and subsidized housing, as well as good basic working conditions such as proper lighting, ventilation, etc. So the whole production process is economically and socially sustainable.
At the moment, organic cotton will cost you more in rands than conventional cotton which is often heavily subsidized. But the cost of conventional cotton is more than the price on the label. If you add the potential health and social costs and the destruction of soil sustainability, conventional cotton will ultimately cost more. Moreover, when you buy an organic cotton product for your family from a reputable store, you know that you are contributing, not only to the wellbeing of your family, but also to a decent living for the all people who produced it. For instance, the items we supply from The Pure Cotton Co is manufactured in industrial town in Cape Town called Atlantis to support the people who lost their jobs because of many factories who closed down during the recession period.
Much of the information about cotton farming was taken from an article on http://naturalorigins.blogspot.com.