Technologies and Processes in the Production of Organic Cotton
In the early 1990s, Monsanto revolutionized cotton farming with the release of "BT cotton," genetically engineered cotton with a built-in pesticide. Furthermore, Monsanto established "Roundup Ready cotton" that could withstand a glyphostate herbicide, which is sprayed in conventional cotton fields to kill surrounding weeds. By allowing farmers to drastically reduce the amount of chemicals used in cotton development, Monsanto questioned conventional cotton growing techniques. Although their efforts were not "organic," these two advances modernized the cotton industry, forging the way for the organic cotton craze (Minor, <http://www.organicconsumers.org>). The Organic Exchange Web site defines organic cotton as "a method of farming without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering" (<http://www.organicexchange.org>). The global production of organic cotton increased 53 percent from 2005 to 2007, and sales are predicted to reach $2.6 billion by the end of 2008 (<http://www.ota.com>). The expansion of technology and environmentally friendly processes utilized in organic cotton farming and manufacturing play a crucial role in its mounting popularity.
In organic farming, cottonseeds cannot be treated with insecticides, so producers must exercise alternate solutions. For example, in India, growers encase seeds in cow manure because its fungicidal qualities ward off devastating bacteria. Trichoderma, an undisruptive fungus, contains spores that compete with and destroy other harmful fungicides that may be present on the seed coat. Also, natural fertilizers like azotobacter, azospirillum, and phosphate-solubizing bacteria work with the cotton plant to promote nutrient uptake (Myers and Stolton, 25).
Soil management and fertility are pressing concerns for organic farmers who cannot spray synthetic growth enhancers. Instead, they use nitrogen-fixing plants to increase and maintain nitrogen levels in the soil. Green manures like leguminous plants and grass ley are completely natural and improve the organic matter and internal drainage capabilities of the soil (27). Conservation tillage is a practice that requires less plowing and soil distortion, resulting in less erosion and runoff and greater moisture retention in the soil. The implementation of this practice reduced the United States' carbon dioxide emission by the equivalent of eliminating 27,000 cars from the road (<http://www.cottoninc.com>).
Insect control remains as the most difficult issue in the production of organic cotton. Instead of synthetic pesticides filled with harmful chemicals, organic growers seek more natural substitutes to eliminate crop-destroying insects. Alongside cotton fields, farmers sow "insectary plants" like chickpea, maize, and Malvaceae vegetables that attract insects and keep pests away from the main crop (Myers and Stolton, 30). Trichogramma wasps lay eggs in the larvae of bollworms, a problematic pest that feeds on cotton. These wasps, along with lacewings and various Coccinelid beetles can be raised and released in order to establish equilibrium between pests and their natural enemies (32). In 1996, the Sustainable Cotton Project launched a system called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) that focused on natural solutions similar to those previously mentioned in order to control pests without chemically potent insecticides (<http://www.sustainablecotton.org>). Beneficial insects decrease the economic and environmental pressures caused by pest infestations in organic cotton farms.
The general technology involved in ginning, spinning, knitting/weaving, and dyeing/finishing organic cotton is similar to that of regular cotton, but strict separations between the two bales are necessary. Organic cotton must be processed separately from conventional cotton, and machines are cleaned to avoid contamination. In the dyeing and finishing processes, manufacturers only treat organic cotton with chemicals that meet organic fiber standards. As technology is perfected and processes are refined, the production of organic cotton will continue to alleviate humanity's threatening impact on the environment.
Myers, Dorothy and Stolton, Sue. Organic Cotton: From Field to Final Product. London:
Intermediate Technology Publications, 1999.
Minor, Elliott. "Herbicide-Resistant Weed Worries Farmers." Associated Press 19 Dec 2006 18
Sep 2008 <http://www.organicconsumer.org>.
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"All About Organic." Organic Exchange: Growing the Global Organic Cotton Market. Organic
Exchange. 18 Sep 2008 <http://www.organicexchange.org>.
By Emily Boland
Organic Cotton Processes
Because cotton attracts a wide variety of insects, it has become "one of the largest pesticide dependent crops in the world" (Organic Cotton vs. Conventional: What's the difference?, 2008). With the world heading towards a greener, more eco-friendly lifestyle, organic cotton production has become more and more common. In general, a field and its crop has to be grown following the USDA requirements for at least 3 years to be considered organic and certified by a third party (Guerena and Sullivan, 2003). Everything from the selection of seeds to the harvesting and finishing of organic cotton differs from the production of conventionally grown cotton (Organic Cotton vs. Conventional: What's the difference?, 2008).
Throughout all the stages of cotton production, the main difference between organic cotton and conventional cotton is the use or lack of chemicals. Organic cotton begins with selecting seeds that are not genetically modified and rely on natural methods to resist pests (Everman). These methods include the use of "beneficial insects", natural enemies of cotton pests, and strip cutting, which means placing a crop of alfalfa that "prevents the immigration of certain species at harvest time and keeps out one of cotton's main pests out" (Guerena and Sullivan, 2003). Once cotton is ready to harvest, the process of defoliation differs slightly between organic and conventional cotton. With conventional cotton, defoliation of the cotton boll is induced using chemicals. To avoid using harmful chemicals, organic cotton is defoliated naturally by "freezing temperatures or the use of water management" (Organic Cotton vs. Conventional: What's the difference?, 2008). After harvesting, the dyeing and finishing processes used on organic cotton are also free of harmful chemicals. Peroxide is used to whiten the cotton rather than the use of chlorine bleach, which releases toxic chemicals into the environment (Organic Cotton vs. Conventional: What's the difference?, 2008). Even if the growth and harvesting processes are done following organic guidelines, the dyeing process can negate these environmentally sound procedures. "Certified organic manufacturing facilities will often use low-impact dyes that use clays, vegetables or minerals to create varying shades" (Everman).
Other than environmentally friendly benefits, organic cotton growing has helped make workers in the cotton business become more healthy and free of pesticide exposure (Everman). Requiring organic cotton guidelines, the government can help regulate fair trade regarding wages and treatment of workers in the industry (Organic Cotton vs. Conventional: What's the difference?, 2008). These benefits however come at a cost. "Products made with organic cotton are 10-45% more expensive than conventional cotton products" (Everman). Even though organic cotton tends to be more expensive, the additional costs are worth the health of the people involved in production, the health of the consumers wearing the products, and the health of the environment.
(2008, April 21). Green Cotton. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from Organic Cotton vs.
Conventional: What's the difference? Web site: http://greencotton.wordpress.com/2008/04/21/organic-cotton-vs-conventional-whats-the-difference/
Everman, Victoria Gaiam Life. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from How Eco Is Organic
Cotton? The Facts on 7 Questions Web site: http://life.gaiam.com/gaiam/p/How-Eco-Is-Organic-Cotton-The-Facts-on-7-Questions.html
Guerena, Sullivan , Martin, Preston (2003). National Sustainable Agriculture Information
Service. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from Organic Cotton Production Web site: http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/cotton.pdf#xml=http://search.ncat.org/texis/search/pdfhi.txt?query=
By Nicole Bowman
Copyright © 2008 Department of Textile and Apparel Management
University of Missouri
137 Stanley Hall, Columbia, MO 65211
Telephone: 573.882.7317 Fax: 573.882.3289