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Cotton and the Environment

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Organic agriculture protects the health of people and the planet by reducing the overall exposure to toxic chemicals from synthetic pesticides that can end up in the ground, air, water and food supply, and that are associated with health consequences, from asthma to cancer.

Because organic agriculture doesn't use toxic and persistent pesticides, choosing organic products is an easy way to help protect yourself.

According to the 2011 Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Farm and Fiber Report, organic cotton production grew 15 percent from 209,950 metric tons (MT) in 2008‐09 to 241,276 MT (1.1 million bales) grown on 461,000 hectares (1.14 million acres) in 2009‐2010. Organic cotton now represents 1.1 percent of global cotton production.

The U.S. organic cotton market continues to grow, encouraged by consumer demand, price premiums, and regulatory shifts that will ease marketing restrictions for organic cotton products, according to the 2010 and Preliminary 2011 U.S. Organic Cotton Production & Marketing Trends report released by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in January 2012.

The survey, produced by OTA with funding by Cotton Incorporated, showed planted acres were up 36 percent, to reach 11,827 acres, in 2010, while bales harvested were up nearly 24 percent. U.S. producers harvested 11,262 acres of organic cotton in 2010, representing 95 percent of planted acres, and yielding 13,279 bales

Organic cotton was grown in 23 countries worldwide in 2009-2010 led by India and including (in order of rank) Syria, Turkey, China, United States, Tanzania, Uganda, Peru, Egypt, Mali, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Israel, Benin, Paraguay, Greece, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Senegal, Nicaragua, South Africa, Brazil, and Zambia. Approximately 274,000 farmers grew the fiber.

Here are some reasons why organic cotton production is important to the long-term health of the planet.

  • Cotton uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.). (Allan Woodburn)
  • Approximately 10% of all pesticides sold for use in U. S. agriculture were applied to cotton in 1997, the most recent year for which such data is publicly available. (ACPA)
  • Fifty-five million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on the 12.8 million acres of conventional cotton grown in the U.S. in 2003 (4.3 pounds/ acre), ranking cotton third behind corn and soybeans in total amount of pesticides sprayed. (USDA)
  • Over 2.03 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers were applied to conventional cotton in 2000 (142 pounds/acre), making cotton the fourth most heavily fertilized crop behind corn, winter wheat, and soybeans. (USDA)
  • The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin). (EPA)
  • In 1999, a work crew re-entered a cotton field about five hours after it was treated with tribufos and sodium chlorate (re-entry should have been prohibited for 24 hours). Seven workers subsequently sought medical treatment and five have had ongoing health problems. (California DPR)

How is the apparel industry involved with organic cotton?

Apparel companies are developing programs that either use 100 percent organically grown cotton, or blend small percentages of organic cotton with conventional cotton in their products. There are a number of companies driving the expanded use of domestic and international organic cotton.

What kinds of products are made using organic cotton?
As a result of consumer interest, organic cotton fiber is used in everything from personal care items (sanitary products, make-up removal pads, cotton puffs, ear swabs), to fabrics, home furnishings (towels, bathrobes, sheets, blankets, bedding, beds), children's products (toys, diapers), and clothes of all kinds and styles (whether for lounging, sports or the workplace).

In addition, organic cottonseed is used for animal feed, and organic cottonseed oil is used in a variety of food products, including cookies and chips.


OTA's "2006 U.S. Organic Production & Marketing Trends" report.

Allen Woodburn Associates Ltd./Managing Resources Ltd., "Cotton: The Crop and its Agrochemicals Market," 1995.

American Crop Protection Association, "1997 Total U. S. Sales by Crop Protection Product Type and Market," 1998 ACPA Industry Profile.

California Department of Pesticide Regulation, "DPR Releases Data on 1999 Pesticide Injuries," 2001.

U. S. Department of Agriculture, "Agricultural Chemical Usage: 2003 Field Crop Summary."

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, "List of Chemicals Evaluated for Carcinogenic Potential," 2001.