Many of those insecticides kill bees and fish. Despite this, insecticide use is still considered indispensable. This is because various pests, viruses and bacteria can damage up to 60% of cotton crops. In addition, herbicides are used to prevent weeds growing.
But, synthetic insecticides and herbicides contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, damaging the eco-system. They also pollute waterways and rivers - making the water unusable.
However, there is an alternative to growing non-organic cotton. It is Organic Cotton. Organic cotton prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and insecticides. It reduces the emission of greenhouse gases. It also helps conserve water - Earth's most precious (and increasingly scarce) resource. Organic cotton reduces use of irrigated water by up to 90%, compared to non-organic cotton.
In an eco-friendly world, organic cotton is becoming more popular with consumers.
What is the story with non-organic cotton?
Cotton farmers, globally, run about 100 million households. Most are small scale farmers, in 3rd world countries. Farmers, who grow non-organic cotton, often farm it as a mono-crop.
The majority of cotton grown the world over is of the genetically modified (GM) type. While yields can be high, they require a lot of pesticides & insecticides to combat pests. However, pests have become increasingly resistant to GM cotton in India. This requires the cotton crop to be sprayed with even more pesticides, and also harming soil quality.
But insecticides and herbicides are also harmful for human health. Farmers are often untrained in how to use them. Fatalities and hospitalisations of farmers and their workers are common. Many of these countries have poor health services and little state support.
Living a healthy lifestyle there is even more vital. People do not enjoy the same healthcare facilities we enjoy in developed nations.
Financially, crop failures can be devastating as there is no alternative income. This is especially true if there is little state support. Many of these farmers borrow monies at unsustainable interest rates. Crop failures mean they are unable to re-pay their debts - and often lead to tragic cases of farmer suicides.
It takes between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water to grow 1 kg of cotton. About the quantity of cotton needed to make a single pair of jeans!
To put this in perspective, Coca-Cola has faced challenges in places such as India and Pakistan. It has been forced to recycle waste water, and think about sustainability – including building desalination plants. That is because it takes almost 3 litres of water to create 1 litre of its drinks. In the scheme of things, non-organic cotton is a much bigger culprit than Sprite or Coca-Cola. Yet local farmers, unlike huge multinational corporations, cannot build desalination plants!
This is a major consideration. The wettest parts of the world are getting wetter and the driest are getting dryer - evidence suggests. Most cotton is grown in many of the driest countries and regions in this world. These countries are already experiencing falling water-tables.
The global population is set to grow by another 2-3 billion people by 2050. Feeding and clothing everyone is likely to stress water levels even more. Irrigation, as a long term solution is unsustainable.
The Guardian newspaper reported in 2015: ‘The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year’. Not much has changed since then.
In the UK we seem to have "endless amounts of water", but others are struggling. Cotton is a culprit, therefore any frugality with water is helpful.
There is a huge saving in water if farmers shift to growing organic cotton.
So, how does organic cotton compare?
The Soil Association has documented how it (organic cotton) grows slower, and yields are around 15% lower, but, compared to non-organic cotton, its fibres are stronger. Also, its impact on global warming is less than half. The input costs to the farmer are almost 40% lower.
On balance, organic cotton is more profitable for farmers than non-organic cotton. Eco-system wise, organic cotton is better for the local flora and fauna. Growing organic cotton is healthier for farmers and their workers too. That is because the use of synthetic fertilisers and insecticides is not allowed.
Farmers instead adopt methods like crop rotation to combat pests. The resulting subsistence food crops provide farmers with better and varied nutrition. It also provides farmers with a diverse and stable income, as excess food crops get sold in local markets.
As population size increases, demand for scarce resources will too. Regarding food, being self-sufficient becomes more important therefore.
Is organic cotton making inroads?
Organic cotton still only accounts for less than 1% of all cotton produced. But attitudes to it, like attitudes to the environment and the food we eat, are changing rapidly. There is an awareness and increase in demand for organic cotton. Consumers are looking for ethically produced and certified textiles. This is where brands like Strawberry & Cream help lead the way in organic cotton awareness.
Organic cotton benefits the eco-system. It also contributes to the well-being of farmers and their families - and helps them live a life of dignity. So, where possible, choose to buy products made from Organic Cotton. Then you’ll be cool in every sense!
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