From Field to Fabric
Given that historians believe cotton was being produced as early as 5000 B.C., you would think that it’s a very sustainable crop. But the reality is that modern cotton production techniques take a heavy toll on the earth’s resources.
Here’s a closer look at the journey your favorite T-shirt made to get to your closet.
The farming process is a major concern for the following reasons: the use of large amounts of water for irrigation, the toxic chemicals used for pest control and for chemical removal of leaves prior to harvest, and the use of synthetic fertilizers.
Cotton plants are amazingly thirsty. On average it takes about 5,300 gallons of water to produce just 2 pounds of cotton. This equals a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. In India, the water consumed to grow cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 26 gallons of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), agriculture is the largest source of pollution in most countries. 2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticides and pesticides respectively. Of the top 10 pesticides used in the U.S. on cotton in 2015
- Three are known to cause or probably to cause cancer
- Three are considered possible cancer-causing agents
- Six are considered known or possible endocrine disruptors, which means that they can interfere with hormone production
The pesticide most commonly used on cotton in the U.S. is glyphosate and it represents 35% of all pesticides used on cotton crops. It was recently determined to be a chemical likely able to cause cancer. For some great information about the organic industry, check out this fact sheet at Organic Trade Association.
Synthetic fertilizers are harmful to the environment. They cause runoff which affects freshwater habitats and wells. In 2015, almost 973 million pounds of fertilizer was used in the U.S. Fertilizers that are nitrogen based make up more than half of all U.S. cotton fertilizer and are a major source for increased nitrous oxide emissions. These emissions are over 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
And There’s More…
Today, most farmers use cotton that has been genetically modified in either of the following ways: seeds that have been engineered to tolerate herbicides (known as HT cotton or herbicide resistant cotton) or seeds that have been engineered to provide resistance to certain insects (known as Bt cotton). In fact, 89% of U.S. cotton plantings in 2016 were HT and 84% were Bt.
The term GMO means ‘genetically modified organism’ and in this case we are referring to a cotton seed that has had some of its DNA modified using a gene from a bacteria. This gene produces a protein that is toxic to specific insects.
GMOs have been controversial in the food industry and are looking to be no less so in cotton production. For instance, the use of Bt may create resistance among insects, thus making control of pests much more difficult.
There are positives and negatives to be considered and given that the GMO industry is less than 30 years old, it is difficult to know what tradeoffs are being made now that may come back to haunt us in the future.
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Organic Cotton Production
Organic cotton farmers start with non-GMO seeds which are then grown with little or no pest control products. When used, pest control may include natural materials such as garlic, hydrogen peroxide, neem oil and vinegar. Synthetic materials are allowed, but with restricted usage and they must be listed on the USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Weeds are often controlled by mechanical means or even by hand. Organic farming methods also use natural fertilizers, such as compost and animal manure.
So what are the drawbacks? It may seem strange but the special GMO seeds, along with all the chemical pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers are actually what make conventional cotton cheaper. Growing and harvesting organic cotton requires much more manual labor which significantly increases costs. Also, organic farmers lose more of their crops due to the less efficient methods for pest control.
Although organic cotton farming is gaining in popularity, it is still hard to compete with the big manufacturers who can produce cotton more efficiently and therefore more cheaply. Until organic cotton can be mass produced, its prices will be higher than conventional cotton.
That said, organic materials are high quality, so not only do they look and feel good, they tend to last longer than other clothing. It’s important to keep in mind that the cost of a product isn’t only based on what is on the price tag. Everything has an impact on our planet. While buying organic may seem more expensive in the short term, the long term benefits are more than worth it.