The Cotton Question


GM cotton credentials under fire (14th May 2010)

My own journey in learning about the ills of conventional cotton cultivation has already been documented at organically (please click here).

I've gathered here other information on the wider cotton question. Clicking on the links will take you to external sites.

Growing Cotton

I thought I had done much of the research on this, and then discovered how children are exploited: forced into cotton picking this 'White Gold'. You can learn about this (and watch a video) here.

This video would perhaps help to answer the question why some cotton clothes can be bought so cheaply.

The following links show how conventional growers tell us the story of cotton. Notice that no mention is made of the harm done by the excessive use of pesticides and other chemicals:

The Story of Cotton

Cotton's Journey (aimed at children)

Pesticide Use

Cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide releases – more
than any other single crop. Almost 1.0 kilogram of hazardous pesticides is applied for every hectare under cotton.

Between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalization each year, according to a report prepared jointly for the FAO, UNEP and WHO.

Following is a real example of what happened as a result of potent chemicals used in conventional cotton agriculture:

"A young boy of eight had been helping his parents by weeding in the cotton fields. Feeling thirsty, he ran back to the house, but found an empty container by the path and used it to scoop up some water from a ditch. He did not return home, and a village search found his body next to the empty endosulfan bottle innocently used to quench his thirst."

Source: The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton (PDF)

Cotton Subsidies

Cheap cotton is also partly a result of substantial American subsidies.

The larger the farms, the greater the subsidy they gain, and so "the largest 10 per cent of American cotton agro-businesses received three-quarters of the total subsidies" according to a 2002 Oxfam report here.

In 2006 "American cotton farmers receive up to 73 percent more than the world market price for their crop. To compensate for falling prices, U.S. cotton subsidies have doubled since 1992, and in 2001-2002 America's 25,000 cotton farmers received a $230 subsidy for every acre of cotton planted — a total of $3.9 billion" (Source: Farm Subsidies: Devastating the World's Poor and the Environment).

Outside of America this means that the cotton grown in other countries — developing nations in West Africa such as  Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin — have to suffer depressed prices as a result of America dumping cotton into the market.

The preceding report also notes that "in Burkina Faso, 85 percent of the population (more than two million people) depends on cotton production and over half the population lives in poverty. The cost to produce a pound of cotton is one-third the cost in the United States, but farmers there cannot compete in world markets against American cotton. There are similar problems in other countries that also rely heavily on cotton."

While we are likely to agree that trade is better than aid, unfair practices such as these American subsidies are making fair trade very difficult.

Has the situation improved in 2007? The answer is 'No' according to this 2007 Associated Press report.

Other comments on cotton subsidies are:

U.S. Cotton Subsidies Cost W. Africa Millions - Report (2007)

Bumper subsidy crop for US cotton producers: African farmers suffer (2005 Oxfam report)

U.S. cotton subsidies make the poor poorer (2003)

GM Cotton

What is GM cotton? Sometimes you might come across the term Bt Cotton. "Bt cotton" carries a gene derived from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which is supposed to provide resistance to the bollworm, the number one enemy to cotton growers.

However, unlike traditional agriculture where seed from one year is saved for the following, Bt cotton requires farmers to buy new seed every year as the seed is genetically modified to 'terminate' (ie die).

Is it good for us? Is it good for the farmer? Is it good for the farmer on a small-hold farm (eg in India) who cannot afford to set aside 20% of his land to 'waste' to prevent the bollworm gaining resistance to the GM cotton, as compared to the mega-farms in the United States?

The authors of Prospects for Bt Cotton Technology in India (2004) come out in clear support for Bt Cotton in India. Do note that the authors work (or worked) for a company that supplies GM seed.

An opposing view is provided in The Bt Cotton Story (PDF) (2002) which also — importantly — highlights that the company that has developed the varieties (ie supplies the seed), had been appointed by a government agency to monitor its own performance.

Is objectivity possible in such a situation? 

Besides, the large GM technology developed for the specific context of the mega-American cotton fields with one major pest (the boll weevil) does not actually suit the small-hold farms in India where there is a much wider range of pests.

A Disaster Called Bt Cotton (2005)

The Economics of Bt Cotton (PDF)

While Indian cotton farmers who had succumbed to the charms of the GM seed salesmen (ie the middle-men who also sell them expensive pesticides and who often function as money-lenders as well) are known to be killing themselves as a result of bad debts, farmers who had returned to organic cotton agriculture are reaping the rich rewards.

Of the Bt. Cotton farmers: "These farmers are very aware of the problems of pesticides, and many thousands of them are killed either passively through poisoning or actively through suicide when their crops fail."

In contrast, organic farmers or those in the process of converting to organic have farms that yield "viable seed that puts seed control back in the farmers’ hands, allowing them to retain and propagate the line; an unusual benefit in this age of hybrids. 

"So with freely available local fertilisers such as tank silt, vermicompost and green manure, and cheap natural pest control inputs, a profit from the crop is almost inevitable, giving peace of mind to the farmer, who can repay any debt to the cooperative for lending to new members."

See Return to Organic Cotton & Avoid the Bt-Cotton Trap (2006 ISIS report).

Bt Cotton is also facing problems in China according to this 2006 report:

Seven-year glitch: Cornell warns that Chinese GM cotton farmers are losing money due to 'secondary' pests

Making Cotton Work

We've got the growing of cotton 'sorted'. We know the impact of heavy pesticide use. We know why it could be bought so cheap. We know the impact of Bt Cotton on small farmers. Now let's consider how cotton goods — like our T-shirt — are made.

Cotton: clothed in the cruelty of the global system (2005)

Asda, Primark and Tesco accused over clothing factories (2007)

Now contrast this with an example of how fairly traded organic cotton cloth and clothes are made:

How organic cotton is grown

How clothes are made

How now would we choose our clothes, especially those cotton clothes?

What Next?

Does this mean that we must now throw away everything that we own that is made from conventional cotton?

Far from it, customers of organically  tell us how they are gradually switching over to organic cotton. When something (eg face cloth, dishcloth, bedding, etc) wears out, they now opt to buy an organic cotton version instead of any old cotton.

Throwing out conventional cotton items that have already been soaked in chemicals does not make the problem go away. It only goes into landfills for a little while (they do biodegrade). The solution seems to be to phase out the use of conventional cotton as much as possible.

'Problems' with Organic Cotton

There are other problems when making the switch to organic cotton, as some have found.

The first is, it is more expensive. Having now explained how conventional cotton could be cheap, it is easy to understand why organic cotton is more expensive.

Given that retailers of organic cotton goods are also almost always interested in fair trade and ethical labour conditions, the end-products are necessarily dearer.

One solution to this is: buy less, use more. See blog post: How to shop without buying anything

Instead of throwing away, we revert to repairing and re-using, passing them on in a wide circle amongst friends and family (especially children's clothes).

Sometimes we cannot find organic cotton clothes that fit. One solution is to learn to sew. We can buy organic cotton fabric (eg from Bishopston Trading) to sew our casual clothes.

Or we could seek out people in our neighbourhood who are able to do this. Sewing is a dying skill these days because mass-produced clothes have been so indecently cheap in recent years.

As with children's clothes, it is far better to repair and re-use rather than throw clothes away once there is a tear.

There is no shame with wearing the same clothes often. Why not have just a few good pieces of clothing, but wear them differently, accessorizing creatively for different seasons and events?

For a list of retailers of organic cotton products, see the PAN-UK  (Pesticide Action Network UK) Wear Organic website.

Cotton Bags or Organic Cotton Bags?

Some of us are already convinced that we cannot carry on using the billions of plastic carrier bags being handed out worldwide every year. Some of us are switching to reusable bags.

Do try, however, to choose organic cotton bags rather than conventional cotton ones where possible.

There are bags (and clothes) touted as 'pure cotton', 'natural cotton', or '100% natural cotton'. Some are advertised as 'ethically traded' or 'ethical labour assured', and so on.

Buying conventional cotton increases its demand. To reduce the demand for poisonous conventional cotton, the best option is 'organic cotton'.

Please post your Feedback and own experience here.

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