Cotton is the most widely grown and chemically intensive crop grown on earth. Cotton, because of its versatility, is used for clothing, food and fiber, making it the most widely traded commodity in the world according to the American-based Sustainable Cotton Project. Yet the vast majority of cotton is grown with non-sustainable methods.
Data from the Pesticide Action Network of the United Kingdom and from the American Organic Trade Association (OTA) estimates in 2000-2001 international cotton production was approximately 6,368 metric tons (slightly more than 14 million pounds). The Organic Trade Association confirms less than .03% of the global cotton is grown organically.
Each pound of non-organic cotton harvested uses an estimated 1/3 of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. If you think of that in clothing, it takes between 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound of fertilizers and chemicals to produce 1 cotton T-shirt or 3 pairs of cotton boxer shorts. In the USA alone, the cotton crop uses 25% of total pesticides consumed annually. Around the globe, conventionally grown cotton consumes approximately 25% of the total insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides used each year according to About Organic Cotton.
Cotton farming is extremely harmful for the environment. The effects of land degradation caused by intensive chemical farming include soil nutrient depletion, agrochemical pollution, and soil erosion according to the data from the Land Degradation in the Developing World Report. Contamination of water and soil are directly linked to pesticide and fertilizer use on cotton crops. In fact, it is estimated that only .01-5% of pesticides used actually reach their original targets. Deadly pesticide residues are found in every body of water on earth and in almost all animal species and human populations (including in the breast milk of women) throughout the world.
More than 70% of the US-grown cotton is genetically modified.
About Organic Cotton reports more than 70% of the US-grown cotton is genetically modified. The genetically modified cotton is often Round Up Ready® (trademark of Monsanto) which makes glyphosate resistant cotton plants explains American-based Beyond Pesticides. Widely used and linked to serious side effects, Beyond Pesticides describes gyphosate as the ‘McPesticide’ of the toxic chemicals due to its wide-spread use and serious health consequences, ‘…this pesticide is tied to acute human health effects and linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.’
Organic Cotton’s Future
Demand for organic cotton continues to climb as smart consumers become increasingly cognizant of the negative effects of consuming products made from chemically intensive crops. In 2003, organic fiber sales in the United States grew by 22.7 percent over the previous year, to reach $85 million, according to the Organic Trade Association's 2004 Manufacturer Survey.
Numerous companies are also making a long-term commitment to the environment by switching to all organic cotton-clothing lines or introducing organic cotton into their existing merchandise. In 2005, Canadian Mountain Equipment Company was one of the world’s top buyers of organic cotton fiber when they purchased some 129,300kg of raw material. According to Mountain Equipment Company data, by using organic cotton they avoided the use of 42,600kg of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or defoliants.
The Sustainable Cotton Project works to raise awareness about the world’s most chemical-intensive crop: http://www.sustainablecotton.org/
About Organic Cotton offers an educational tutorial explaining why consumers should consider switching to organic cotton: http://www.aboutorganiccotton.org/
Organic Trade Association promotes the organic trade industry in North America: http://www.ota.com/