by Alex Owre
Eli Whitney was just trying to help. Before he invented the cotton gin in 1793, workers removed cotton seeds from the fiber by hand, cleaning one pound a day. Using his simple machine, a single person could clean 50 pounds. In just a few years, this labor-intensive plant of dubious profit potential became one of the country’s preeminent cash crops. With cotton as his muse, Whitney had launched the Industrial Revolution.
Today, cotton is synonymous with Big Agriculture. United States farmers produced their largest-ever cotton crop in 2005, and total global supply for 2005/06 is forecast at over 35 million tons, the largest in history. One of the most widely traded commodities on earth, cotton represents an essential element of foreign exchange earnings for more than 50 countries.
Seemingly, we Americans could not live without it. Cotton fiber is the stuff of our iconographic T-shirts and jeans; oil from its seeds permeates some of our favorite foods; spent seed hulls and gin trash are fed to the cattle that satisfy our hunger for red meat. On our backs and in our bellies, cotton is everywhere, and every year the demand for it grows.
But puffy white cotton has a dark side. The very commodity through which the industrial-agriculture model originated has come to embody that model’s worst abuses. Each year, over 80 million pounds of toxic compounds are sprayed on cotton fields, making cotton grown “conventionally” one of the world’s most chemical-intensive crops; and the pesticides used are some of the most dangerous on the market—some originally formulated as nerve agents for warfare. (Disturbingly, some of these chemicals, which have been banned for food crops, nonetheless infiltrate our food supply.) In developing countries where safety oversight is less strict, farming cotton can be catastrophic. Across crops, as many as 20,000 deaths a year are attributed to accidental pesticide poisonings. The earth, too, is poisoned. Cotton is grown year-after-year in fields without rotation. The applied synthetic nutrients are poor replacements for depleted natural fertility, and the cycle continues until the soil is rendered infertile, the fields toxic wastelands.
In the latest twist of the agro-industrial model, biotechnology offers a “solution” to chemical dependence in cotton farming. Monsanto’s Bt cotton plant has been genetically engineered (GE) to produce the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin in every cell, thereby theoretically eliminating or greatly reducing the need to spray insecticides. When Monsanto introduced Bt cotton to the market in 1996, U.S. farmers seized upon it, making it the biggest initial-year adoption of a product in the history of U.S. cotton production— despite the fact that the product had not yet proven itself. Today, GM cotton accounts for more than three-quarters of U.S. cotton acreage. (https://pewagbiotech.org/resources/factsheets/display.php3?FactsheetID)
India, the second-leading foreign producer of cotton after China, also pinned its hopes on Bt cotton. After a few years, this gamble appears not to have paid off. Recent reports from the field in the state of Anhdra Pradesh (“Pesticide capital of the world”) make clear that GE cotton has not performed as described by marketing propaganda. (www.fibre2fashion.com/news/textilenews/newsdetails.aspx?news_id=15052)
According to a recent study by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (www.non-gm-farmers.com/news_details), risk factors with Bt cotton are high and performance unpredictable. The cotton has proven extremely intolerant to stress, has manifested deformities (red plants, misshapen bolls) and has yielded less than non-Bt cotton. Incidence of sucking pests and secondary pests is higher than in non-Bt cotton; and despite the promise of pesticide reduction with Bt, some farmers report higher spray rates than with non-Bt cotton as new pests emerge.
A November 2003 report, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” says that use of Bt transgenic cotton reduced insecticide applications slightly in U.S. cotton crops, while herbicide use increased with additional planting of Roundup Ready GE cotton. (www.biotech-info.net/technicalpaper6.html) This study did not take into account, however, the Bt toxin present in engineered plants or remaining in the soil once the crop was harvested.
To the rampant chemical use and misapplied science, we must consider a third blight inextricably tied to cotton: slavery. Though it ended with the Civil War in the United States, slavery continues around the developing world today in the form of sweatshops, where poorly compensated laborers toil under inhumane conditions to make the clothes we wear. According to the research organization Behind the Label, 80% of apparel workers producing for the U.S. market work under conditions that violate both local law and international labor standards.
Deadly chemicals, unproven science and slavery: Through its infinite variety of fiber and food end products, cotton is the perfect vehicle for introducing these ills of the agro-industrial complex to our households.
Organic Cotton and Fair Trade
Ironically, the pervasiveness of cotton offers the greatest hope for a solution. To date, organic cotton (cotton grown without toxic synthetic chemical inputs and with close attention to healthy soils and healthy environments) accounts for only ± 0.5% of the overall market for cotton goods worldwide, but signs are encouraging that organic cotton is hitting the mainstream. In 1996, the active-wear manufacturer Patagonia eliminated all conventionally grown cotton from its line. Other large corporations are catching on: Recently, Wal-Mart, Target and L.L. Bean announced the addition of organic clothing lines to their offerings.
Despite the higher price, sales of organic cotton goods are booming. With greater demand for organic cotton, lower prices should follow. More importantly, with newly educated buyers taking to organic cotton, the organic movement as a whole stands to benefit. According to a 2005 study conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute, consumers using one natural/organic product category were three to 12 times more likely to use products from another natural/organic category. Wider demand for organic cotton products will drive demand for other organic products.
Fair Trade cotton, too, is making inroads into the mainstream economy. “Fair Trade” denotes cotton produced by suppliers who are guaranteed a fair price for their organically produced goods, and whose production process meets stringent, internationally established labor standards.
Shoppers in the United States buy 25% of the world’s manufactured garments. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, “if just 2% of our country’s consumers bought only from non-sweatshop suppliers, producers would need to change their practices to stay competitive.”
The movement is gaining traction. Students at more than 200 universities have joined the “Sweatshop-Free Campus Campaign” of the United Students Against Sweatshops and are urging their administrations to use Fair Trade organic cotton for apparel that bears their school logo. Similarly, the Sustainable Cotton Project has enjoined college bookstores to make the switch to organic cotton apparel.
Eli Whitney did not know that his fantastic machine would start a revolution whose hallmarks include some of the meanest means of production known to man. Nor could it be predicted that cotton, one of the most useful commodities on earth, would endure for so long the stigma of that revolution’s ills. But times are changing: By playing a leading role in the burgeoning organic and Fair Trade revolution, cotton may have found its road to redemption.
About the author: Alex Owre lives in Appleton with his wife and two children.
Texas Cotton Farmers Sue Monsanto for Crop Loss
Roundup Ready cotton—a cotton variety genetically engineered (GE) to tolerate applications of Roundup herbicide–has failed some Texas farmers. Monsanto blames the weather.
Farmers, however, are suing Monsanto for damages they believe resulted from the Roundup Ready system failure. “The main thing about this is that we feel like Monsanto has been lying to us, completely disrespecting farmers and consultants who have many years of experience growing cotton in Texas.” Francis Krenek’s statement as a crop consultant for cotton farmers in the area near Wharton, Texas, comes after years of helping farmers there grow GE cotton. According to Krenek, farmers in his area have been forced somewhat to use Monsanto’s GE varieties: In many cases, certain varieties of seed are available only in combination with a form carrying the Roundup Ready trait.
“Just after first bloom, we noticed that our fields of Roundup Ready cotton that had received hooded applications of Roundup (glyphosate) were experiencing significant first position boll shed, representing substantial loss of fiber and seeds,” explains Krenek. “The boll of the cotton plant is where the fibers and seeds are located.” Plants in Roundup-treated fields “appeared as if they had been victims to insects or rainy or cloudy weather, but neither was the case.” Krenek says that an unusually high number of bolls were also misshapen. He believes that these problems were directly related to the rates and numbers of Roundup applications and variety selection. In extreme cases, treated fields of Roundup Ready cotton did not set any bolls until near the end of the growing season. Some of these fields were not worth harvesting. “We had seen the same damage patterns in previous years, but not as severe as this year.”
Krenek adds that his fields of Roundup Ready cotton that were never treated with glyphosate and his fields containing varieties of non Roundup Ready cotton produced normal crops in 2005.
Similar problems occurred with Roundup Ready cotton in 1997 in Mississippi and Georgia. The Mississippi Seed Board conducted arbitration and found Monsanto liable.
Although Monsanto blames the weather, farmer Alan Stasney said his fields provide evidence to the contrary. A strip of cotton four rows across and 3,000 feet long that inadvertently was not treated with Roundup yielded 1,051 pounds of lint per acre at harvest, while on either side of those rows, cotton treated with Roundup yielded only 675 pounds per acre. Stasney said the lost yield cost him more than $250,000 in sales and forced him to refinance his farm.
Source: Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS), March 27, 2006; www.panna.org. See PANNA’s Corporate Profile on Monsanto at