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Cotton, Pesticides, Planet & People

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Who else has drawer after drawer of t-shirts from ball teams, store promotions, chess clubs, Bible school and community groups?  Did you know that every t-shirt requires about half its weight in chemical inputs before becoming that popular gear?  That’s what Texas farmer Gary Oldham calculated before deciding to start growing cotton with organic methods instead.  From the fossil-fuel-based synthetic fertilizers to toxic, persistent pesticides, conventional cotton requires heavy chemical inputs, leaving soils depleted of nutrients, polluting air and water, even endangering human health.  TShirtStackFlourSackMama

According to the Pesticide Action Network, conventional cotton uses one-quarter of insect-killing insecticides and one-tenth of overall pesticides required by crops around the globe.  These estimates vary, but conventional cotton is certainly heavily reliant on the chemical industry.  Pesticides are suspected of poisoning farm workers while endangering health of children who live near some conventional farm operations.  Traces of pesticides are regularly found via biomonitoring studies in samples of the general public. Increasing use of genetically modified cotton raises more complex environmental concerns about trends like pest resistance.

A joint report by the Soil Association and Global Organic Textile Standardstates “Cotton is a toxic crop.” Yet organic growing methods offer an alternative.  The report continues “As organic cotton farmers around the world demonstrate every day, cotton can be grown without pesticides…By eliminating all hazardous synthetic pesticides in its production, not just reducing them like other sustainable cotton schemes, organic cotton offers a healthy and sustainable farming future for farmers and their families. Organic takes the toxic impact out of producing cotton.”

In addition to reducing chemical inputs, organic cotton also helps conserve clean water and builds healthier soils because of the growing methods that require healthy soil building, crop rotations and responsible insect management. These practices help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, helping slow climate change.

The United States trails behind India, Syria, China and Turkey in organic cotton production.  Trade groups show demand for organic cotton steadily increasing.  The US Agricultural Marketing Service has reported steady demand for organic cotton, with most of it being grown in Texas.

PAN Senior Scientist Margaret Reeves says, “From a global perspective, if we can promote, support, encourage the shift from conventional cotton production to organic, we’re making a big impact on a global scale.”


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