Cotton and the Environment - Organic Trade Association
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Cotton and the Environment


Overview of Organic Cotton Production
Organic agriculture protects the health of people and the planet by reducing 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 you and your family.

Globally, approximately 151,079 metric tons (MT) of organic cotton (693,900 bales) were grown on 324,577 hectares (802,047 acres) in 2010-2011. It was grown in 20 countries led by India and including (in order of rank) Syria, China, Turkey, the United States, Tanzania, Egypt, Mali, Kyrgyzstan, Peru, Pakistan, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Benin, Paraguay, Israel, Tajikistan, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Senegal. Organic cotton now equals 0.7% of global cotton production.1

In the United States, approximately 11,262 acres of organic cotton were harvested in 2010, yielding 13,279 bales.2 In 2011, organic cotton was grown in Texas, as well as California, New Mexico, and North Carolina.

Demand is being driven by apparel and textile companies that are expanding their 100% organic cotton programs as well as blending programs that incorporate small percentages of organic cotton into their conventional cotton products.

Here are some reasons why organic cotton production is important to the long-term health of the planet.

  • Pesticide Use and Genetic Engineering Statistics:

Cotton is grown on over 33 million hectares, equivalent to around 2.5% of global arable land in 80 countries.3 Worldwide, annual cotton pesticide sales increased approximately 18.5% in the decade between 1999 -2009, from $2.564 billion to $3.038 billion. Approximately14.1% of global insecticide sales in 2009 were used for cotton. Of the $3.038 billion, $856 million (28%) was for herbicide sales, $1,771 million (58%) for insecticides, $107 million (3.5%) for fungicides, and $304 million (10%) for “other” pesticide use such as defoliants. The figures increased continuously for all categories (with minor exceptions) from 2002 to 2009 before sales of herbicides dipped slightly in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available. Unfortunately, pesticide use data are not available at the global or country level, so sales data are the most available data. Sales values are affected by several factors, such as inflation and the development of newer, and often more expensive, molecules.4

In 2008, global cotton production used almost 7% of all pesticides (including defoliants, herbicides, and insecticides), 5% of the world’s herbicides, and 16% of the world's insecticides in terms of sales.5

In the United States, 2009 sales of pesticides for use on domestic cotton amounted to $687 million, representing 23% of total global cotton pesticide use. The United States is the second largest cotton pesticide region in terms of global sales.6

Approximately 45 million pounds of pesticides were used on approximately 11 million acres of cotton planted in the United States in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available and including the primary production states), amounting to an average of 4.1 pounds of pesticides per acre of cotton grown. This included 24,315,000 pounds of herbicides, 6,044,100 pounds of insecticides, 87,000 pounds of fungicides, and 14,501,000 pounds of “other” pesticides.7

On average, 90% of U.S. cotton is genetically engineered. Moreover, 95 to 98% of all cotton is genetically engineered in 9 of the 11 cotton-producing states surveyed.8 

  • Health and Environmental Concerns from Pesticide & Fertilizer Use and Genetic Engineering

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2010 in the United States as "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens (acephate, 1,3-dichloropropene, diuron, s-metolachlor, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin).9

Eight of the top ten insecticides most commonly used on U.S. cotton in 2010 are classified as moderately to highly acutely hazardous by the World Health Organization. Aldicarb, cypermethrin, dicrotophos, and oxamyl—four of the top ten—are considered “highly hazardous” to “extremely hazardous.”10

Six of the top 15 pesticides used in the United States are considered endocrine disruptors here or in Europe (acephate, aldicarb, diuron, glyphosate, malathion, trifluralin). 11 Endocrine disruptors have been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, early puberty, infertility and other reproductive disorders, and childhood and adult cancers.12

Aldicarb, cotton's fourth most-heavily used insecticide in the U.S. and considered “extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organization13 has been found in the groundwater of 16 states.14

Glyphosate, the top-ranked pesticide used on cotton (also the active ingredient in Roundup® and the herbicide associated with Roundup Ready® genetically engineered cotton), has been found to cause birth defects in experimental animals, as well as cancer, genetic damage, endocrine disruption and other serious health effects. Many of these effects have been shown at very low, physiologically relevant doses.15 In addition, scientists have found significant levels of the herbicide in air and water (both rain and river) samples in the agricultural areas in the Mississippi River watershed. According to scientists, the consistent occurrence of glyphosate in streams and air indicates its transport from its point of use into the broader environment.16

Sodium chlorate, the 14th most-used pesticide on U.S. cotton in 2010, was banned from use in the European Union as of 2010.17

Synthetic fertilizers, more than 1.2 billion pounds of which were used on U.S. upland cotton in 201018, are considered detrimental to the environment, causing leaching and runoff affecting freshwater habitats and wells.19 Nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers, which made up more than half of all the U.S. cotton fertilizer use in 201020, are also considered a major contributor to increased nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, which are 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a greenhouse gas.21

On the other hand, organic farming methods use natural fertilizers, such as compost and animal manure, which recycle the nitrogen already in the soil rather than adding more, thus reducing both pollution and N2O emissions.22 Such methods also sequester and reduce carbon emissions.23

In 2005, a season-long assessment of acute pesticide poisoning among farmers was conducted in three villages in India. Fifty female cotton growers reported adverse effects experienced after exposures to pesticides by themselves and by their male relatives. Typically female tasks such as mixing concentrated chemicals and refilling spraying tanks were as hazardous as direct pesticide application. Of 323 reported events, 83.6% were associated with signs and symptoms of mild to severe poisoning, and 10% of the pesticide application sessions were associated with three or more neurotoxic/systemic signs and symptoms typical of poisoning by organophosphates, which were used in 47% of the applications. Low-income marginal farmers were more often subjected to severe poisoning than were landlords.24

In 2003, Greenpeace India undertook a study of almost 900 children living in cotton-growing areas in six states for their developmental abilities, using a range of tests designed to measure analytical abilities, motor skills, concentration, and memory. They found that the children living in regions in which pesticides are widely used performed significantly worse in these various developmental abilities than children in a control group living elsewhere.25

Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea, formerly the fourth largest inland water body, has now almost completely (90%) dried up due to intensive use of water from its feeder rivers for the irrigation of rice and cotton over several decades, while heavy use of pesticides led to pollution of soils and drinking water. Approximately one million people in the region have long-term chronic health problems as a result. Health problems include anemia in approximately 80% of women, increased lung disease and infant mortality, and a 30% rise in cancers as of 2000.26

In China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, pest populations have increased twelve-fold since 1997, while in India, pesticide use has increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced.27

During the conversion of cotton into conventional clothing, many hazardous materials are used during processing, including silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde—just to name a few. 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.28

Meanwhile, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which safeguards the integrity of organic practices in the finished product, prohibits these and similar chemicals.29

©2012, Organic Trade Association


1Textile Exchange, Organic Cotton Farm & Fiber Report 2010-11, 2012.

2 Organic Trade Association, 2010 and Preliminary 2011 U.S. Organic Cotton Production and Marketing, 2012

3 S. Ferrigno, An Insider's Guide to Cotton & Sustainability, MCL Global, 2012.

4 The Expert Panel on Social, Environmental and Economic Performance of Cotton Production (SEEP), Fact Sheet on Pesticide Use in Cotton Production, April 2012, citing Cropnosis Limited, 2010.

6 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, List of Chemicals Evaluated for Carcinogenic Potential, January 20, 2012 (not online), and EPA, 1-3, Dichloropropene Quickview, May 2000.

14 Environmental Protection Agency, Aldicarb: Special Review Technical Support Document, 1988.

18 USDA Op. cit.

19 Kramer, S. B., J. P. Reganold, J.D. Glover, B.J.M. Bohannan, and H.A. Mooney (2006), Reduced nitrate leaching and enhanced denitrifier activity and efficiency in organically fertilized soils, PNAS, 103 (12): 4522-4527.

20 USDA, Op. cit.

22 Kramer, Op. cit.

23 Organic Federation of Australia, Improving the Capacity of Organic Producers to Manage Climate Change. 2010.

24 F. Mancini, A.H. Van Bruggen, J.L. Jiggins, A.C. Ambatipudi and H. Murphy, International Journal of Occupational Health, Acute pesticide poisoning among female and male cotton growers in India.2005; Vol. 11:221-32.

27 Organic Trade Association, The Organic Report, Fall 2001 referencing Navdanya International, The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes: A Global Citizen’s Report on the State of GMOs,October 2011.

28 Kadolph, S. J., and A.L. Langford, 2002.Textiles (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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Research and Promotion 2012