Cotton is often referred to as “the fabric of our lives,” and for good reason. We come in contact with items made from cotton every day. The clothes you wear, the sheets you sleep on, the diapers you put on your baby and even some of the food you eat have been made with cotton. But growing conventional cotton requires the use of enormous amounts of pesticides, which has a huge environmental impact and presents health risks for those working around it. It may cost less to manufacture and buy conventional cotton, but it’s better for the land, the farm workers and your well-being to choose organic whenever possible.
What's Organic Cotton?
Organic cotton has a low-impact on the environment and handlers. It is grown and harvested by methods that do not use toxic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or defoliants. It relies on natural methods which includes (but is not limited to) crop rotation and cow manure for soil fertility; beneficial predator insects; lengthened growing periods for natural defoliation; and hand-picking, which results in less waste. The statistics from various countries on the health issues of the farmers and handlers of chemically treated crops are startling. The health benefits of organically grown cotton are clear, as are the environmental aspects: reduced toxins and pollutants which infiltrate both the soil and water systems and consequently all living things. It might also be interesting to know also that the cottonseed meal, which is a byproduct of the ginning process, including that of chemically treated cotton, is fed to livestock and can come to us in the form of cottonseed oil in our foods.
Cotton and Environment
About 25 percent of the world’s insecticide use and more than 10 percent of the world’s pesticide goes to cotton crops. In 2003, that amounted to about 55 million pounds of pesticides being sprayed on 12.8 million acres of cotton, according to the Organic Trade Association. Some of these chemicals are considered to be the most toxic chemicals in the world. The health risks of pesticide exposure include birth defects, reproductive disorders and weaker immune systems.
In many countries, cotton is still hand picked; therefore anyone working in those fields is exposed to extreme amounts of toxic chemicals. The chemicals can also affect others in the community once they have seeped into the water supply. With so many products made from cotton, we are all exposed to these chemicals at some point. Even some baked goods, cookies and salad dressing contain cottonseed.
Water use is another issue with conventional cotton production. Crops use intensive irrigation and some estimates say cotton crops are the largest water user among agricultural crops.
Besides helping the environment, there are other benefits from organic cotton products. Working environments are better for those on farms and small-scale farmers save money by not having to buy large amount of pesticides. Consumers benefit too, some suggest that organic cotton products are softer and easier on your skin. Recent awareness of these benefits has increased demand of organic cotton and thus, lowered its cost.