Cotton and the Environment
Benefit of Organic
Organic agriculture protects the health of people and the planet by reducing the overall exposure to toxic chemicals from synthetic pesticides that can end up in the ground, air, water and food supply, and that are associated with health consequences, from asthma to cancer. Because organic agriculture doesn't use toxic and persistent pesticides, choosing organic products is an easy way to help protect yourself.
Acreage estimates for the 2006 U.S. cotton crop show approximately 5,971 acres of certified organic cotton were planted in the United States and in 2007, farmers planed 7,473 acres. Internationally, Turkey and the United States are the largest organic cotton producers.
Demand is being driven by apparel and textile companies that are expanding their 100% organic cotton program and developing programs that blend small percentages of organic cotton with their conventional cotton products.
Here are some reasons why organic cotton production is important to the long-term health of the planet.
Cotton is considered the world's 'dirtiest' crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop (1).
Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production. All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are classified as moderately to highly hazardous (1).
Aldicarb, cotton's second best selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater (1).
Insecticide use has decreased in the last 10 years with the introduction of Biotechnology (BT), the fastest adapted yet most controversial new technology in the history of agriculture. As of 2007, Bt cotton already commands 34% of total cotton cropland and 45% of world cotton production. In Bt cotton, the insecticide is always present in the plant rather than applied in periodic spraying sessions which will lead to rapid rates of pest immunities and possibly produce superpests (3).
It can take almost a 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow one pound of raw cotton in the US, and it takes just under one pound of raw cotton to make one t-shirt (4).
Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are considered the most detrimental to the environment, causing leaching and runoff that freshwater habitats and wells (5).
Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are a major contributor to increased N2O emissions, which are 300 times more potent than CO2 as greenhouse gas (5), which is ominous for global warming as synthetic fertilizer use is forecasted to increase roughly 2.5 times by mid-century (6).
Organic farming methods use natural fertilizers, like compost and animal manure, that recycles the nitrogen already in the soil rather than adding more, which reduces both pollution and N2O emissions (5).
The cottonseed hull, where many pesticide residues have been detected, is a secondary crop sold as a food commodity. It is estimated that as much as 65% of cotton production ends up in our food chain, whether directly through food oil or indirectly through the milk and meat of animals (1).
Cottonseed and field trash is usually sold for animal feed. Studies in Brazil and Nicaragua have show traces of common cotton pesticides in cow milk, fueling concerns about chemical residues on the cottonseed (1).
The developing world is home to 99% of all cotton farmers and produces 75% of the world's total cotton, so it bears the brunt of cotton's environmental and health concerns (1).
Rural farmers lack the necessary safety equipment, protective clothing, and training for handling hazardous pesticides. In India, one in ten pesticide applications results in three or more reported health symptoms related to pesticide exposure (1).
Surveys show that rural cotton farmers often store pesticides in their bedrooms or in close proximity to their food and some even reuse pesticide containers for drinking water. These farmers and their families are at highest risk for acute pesticide poisoning as well as chronic effects (1)
US cotton subsidies artificially lower cotton prices while production costs for Biotech (Bt) seeds and pesticides are rising, causing financial stress in the rest of the world's cotton-producing areas. India's once prestigious cotton belt is now referred to as the "suicide belt" due to farmers unable to accept growing debts. Since 2003, the suicide rate has averaged one every eight hours in Vidarba, India (7).
During the conversion of cotton into conventional clothing, many hazardous materials are used and added to the product, including silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde-just to name a few (8).
Many processing stages result in large amounts of toxic wastewater that carry away residues from chemical cleaning, dyeing, and finishing. This waste depletes the oxygen out of the water, killing aquatic animals and disrupting aquatic ecosystems (8).
The North American Organic Fiber Processing Standards prohibits these and similar chemicals.
Cotton uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.). (Allan Woodburn)
Approximately 10% of all pesticides sold for use in U. S. agriculture were applied to cotton in 1997, the most recent year for which such data is publicly available. (ACPA)
Fifty-five million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on the 12.8 million acres of conventional cotton grown in the U.S. in 2003 (4.3 pounds/ acre), ranking cotton third behind corn and soybeans in total amount of pesticides sprayed. (USDA)
Over 2.03 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers were applied to conventional cotton in 2000 (142 pounds/acre), making cotton the fourth most heavily fertilized crop behind corn, winter wheat, and soybeans. (USDA)
The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin). (EPA)
In 1999, a work crew re-entered a cotton field about five hours after it was treated with tribufos and sodium chlorate (re-entry should have been prohibited for 24 hours). Seven workers subsequently sought medical treatment and five have had ongoing health problems. (California DPR)
1) EJF. (2007). The deadly chemicals in cotton. Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK: London, UK. ISBN No. 1-904523-10-2.
(2) Whitford, F., Pike, D., Burroughs, F., Hanger, G. Johnson, B., & Brassard, D. (2006). The pesticide marketplace: Discovering and developing new products. Purdue University Extension, report # PPP-71.
(3) 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.
(4) 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.
(5) 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.
(6) Tilman, D., Cassman, K., Matson, P., Naylor, R., & Polasky, S. (2002). Nature (418), 71-677.
(7) de Sam Lazaro, F. (2007). The dying fields: India's forgotten farmers [Television series episode]. In WNET (producer), Wide Angle. New York: Public Broadcasting Station.
(8) Kadolph, S. J., & Langford, A. L. (2002). Textiles (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
OTA's "2006 U.S. Organic Production & Marketing Trends" report.
Allen Woodburn Associates Ltd./Managing Resources Ltd., "Cotton: The Crop and its Agrochemicals Market," 1995.
American Crop Protection Association, "1997 Total U. S. Sales by Crop Protection Product Type and Market," 1998 ACPA Industry Profile.
California Department of Pesticide Regulation, "DPR Releases Data on 1999 Pesticide Injuries," 2001.
U. S. Department of Agriculture, "Agricultural Chemical Usage: 2003 Field Crop Summary."
U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, "List of Chemicals Evaluated for Carcinogenic Potential," 2001.
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