We all love the feel of fresh cotton sheets on the bed, soft cotton balls in the bathroom and light cotton clothes in the summer. But at what price to the environment does our cotton come, and should we go organic?
What Is Organic Cotton?
Organic cotton is cotton which is produced in a way which is not harmful to the environment and also provides a sustainable income for the farmer and cotton workers. It is pesticide free, not genetically modified, and more fairly traded.
What’s Wrong With Standard Cotton?
The main problem with standard cotton production is that so many chemicals are used on the plants. These chemicals are bad for the health of the workers, bad for the environment and bad for the organisms that depend on the surrounding plants and soil.
Pesticides And Health
The cotton growing industry uses more pesticides than any other single crop worldwide. It accounts for 16 percent of the global insecticide market and makes billions for the pesticide industry. However, most are highly toxic and at least half are listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as hazardous.
Symptoms of poisoning from pesticides include a whole host of nasty effects including dizziness, shortness of breath, confusion, depression, memory loss, headaches, nausea, loss of consciousness and death.
In India, which grows a third of the world’s cotton, over half of all the pesticides used each year go on cotton – even though cotton accounts for only five percent of the crops being grown. Here it is thought that the incidence of pesticide poisoning is particularly high.
Amongst the worst pesticide offenders used on conventional cotton are:
- Endosulfan – known to have killed nearly 40 people in one season, in one area, in one country.
- Monocrotophus – causes paralysis in children who live in close proximity to cotton crops.
- Aldicarb – one drop can kill an adult and yet it is the second most commonly used pesticide for cotton.
Pesticides And The Environment
Pesticides, when used heavily, can disrupt the natural ecosystem of the crop and reduce biodiversity. In addition to this, the pests the chemicals are designed to kill, often begin to develop a resistance to them, therefore requiring the farmer to use stronger amounts to protect his crops. This has the undesirable effect of the farmer increasing the amount of pesticides used or of having to find alternative chemical mixes, adding chemicals to chemicals.
Pesticides can also adversely affect the environment by leaching into the groundwater, contaminating water supplies and harming marine life.
Non-organic Cotton Is Non-Sustainable
Not only is non-organic cotton not sustainable for the environment, it is also not a sustainable option for the cotton farmer.
In some parts of India, a farmer will spend as much as 60% of his income on the pesticides he needs to ensure his crop is not destroyed by pests. As the insects become resistant to the chemicals, they begin to be ineffective and a vicious cycle develops as the farmer responds by increasing his spend on pesticides until his outlay for chemicals is so great, he makes no money from the cotton crop. This is proving to be a real problem in some areas of the world where farmers have sunk into a spiral of debt which they feel they can’t escape.
What Is Positive About Organic Cotton?
Organic cotton provides a sustainable living for cotton farmers, it will often be traded along fair principals, so providing a better standard of living for the workers, and it uses safe methods to control the amount of pests which might potentially damage a cotton crop.
Along with the use of natural chilli and garlic repellents, the technique of inter-planting is employed, whereby different crops which detract pests are interspersed or grown side-by-side with the cotton.
In this way the cotton is uncontaminated with poisons, biodiversity is actively increased, the health of the cotton workers is protected, and a secondary crop is also provided which can add an additional income stream for farmers. So next time you buy something made from cotton, think about paying a little more to buy organic.