By: Edward Menezes


What is organic cotton?

Cotton grown without the use of any synthetic chemicalsi.e., plant growth regulators, defoliants and fertilizers is considered'organic' cotton.

Organic cotton production means not only the absence ofinorganic synthetic fertilizers and pesticides but it involves very carefulplanning of the whole farming system. In general, organic cotton is grown using methods andmaterials that have low impact on the environment with the organic production systems replenishing and maintaining soil fertility reducing of the use of syntheticpesticides, fertilizersand building a biologically diverse agricultural system.

Organic cotton production uses "natural' chemicals like sulfur dust andBt (Bacillus thuringiensis additive, and not insect-resistant biotech cotton)and other biological control agents in pest management and organic acid-basedfoliar sprays, such as citric acid and nitrogen and zinc sulfate in harvest preparation.

Biotech cottons, containing Bt or other artificiallyintroduced genes, are not allowed to be used for the production of organic cotton - the generalreason being that the technique is currently considered synthetic genemanipulation, not natural.

Why Organic Cotton?

Cotton evokes images of white, fluffy purity and many peoplethink of cotton being a natural, pure fabric. Cotton is a wonderfully versatileand globally important fiber that is used for a vast variety of fiber and food products, making it one of the most widely traded commodities on earth. Versatility, softness,breath-ability, absorbency, year-round comfort, performance, and durability arejust a few of the qualities that have earned cotton its popular status.

Due to its unique fiber structure which can absorb up to 2.7times its own weight in water, cotton breathes and helps remove body moistureby absorbing it andwicking it away from the skin.

Not only is cotton the most popular and best selling fabricin the world, due to its huge commercial value, cotton also represents an essential component of foreign exchange earnings for more than fifty countries.

The value and reach of cotton extends far past the fashionrunway.

So we put cotton next to our skin because it breathes, absorbs andoffers comfort. Cotton also has a reputation for being pure, the best fabricfor a children wear also.

However, most cotton goods sold today don't deserve that naturalreputation. During cotton production and processing, lots of unnatural andhighly hazardous chemicals are used.

Cotton is one of the most intensively sprayed field crops in the world - accountingfor more than 10 percent of pesticide use and nearly 23 percent of agriculturalinsecticide sales worldwide. According to a Pesticide Action Networkstatistic, it takes about one fourth of a pound of chemicals just to make onecotton t-shirt, and two-thirds of a pound to make a pair of jeans.

According to Doug Murray, Ph.D., a professor of sociology atColorado State University " The most hazardous available pesticides are used on cotton, of theavailable today," during his study on pesticide use on cotton overseas.


Cotton is grown in more than 50 developing countries. The leading producers are the U.S., China, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

The effects of this overuse of chemicals on the environment and human health are alarming. For example, pesticide and fertilizer use on cotton has been linked to ground and surface water contamination, and even the pollution of drinking water. And at high enough levels in drinking water, nitrates from nitrogen fertilizer are known to cause methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby syndrome," in infants.

Volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from cotton pesticides exceed eleven million pounds in California, making conventional cotton the highest crop contributor to VOC emissions in the state. And in California, cotton ranks third in the state for total number of pesticide-related illness. For wildlife, the effects of pesticide use on cotton can be devastating. At least 13 pesticides documented as causing die offs in migratory birds are currently registered for use on cotton.

More insidious is the effect of some pesticides on the reproductive capacity of fish and wildlife - harm may not occur right away, but species disappear as they cannot reproduce successfully.

There is a general four-step process to turn a cotton seed into cotton apparel.

  1. Planting and growing
  2. Harvesting
  3. Cleaning or "ginning" of the cotton boll,
  4. Manufacturing

a)       Spinning the cotton fibers to create yarn,

b)       Weaving or knitting to create bolts of cotton fabric,

c)       Fabric dyeing,

d)       Finishing process to create the smooth fabric,

e)       Cutting and sewing of garment for consumers.

Step 1. Planning and growing

Organically grown cotton. Working with rather than against nature is the guiding principle behind organic farming. Organic farmers use biologically based rather than chemically dependent growing systems to raise crops. While many conventional farmers are reacting to the ecological disorder created by monocultures, organic farmers focus on preventing problems before they occur.

By focusing on managing rather than completely eliminating troublesome weeds and insects, organic farmers are able to maintain ecological balance and protect the environment. Organic cotton is now being grown in more than 18 countries worldwide. In the United States, approximately 10,000 acres of organic cotton were planted in 1998 in the Mid-South, Texas and California.

The Soil:

Organic Farming starts with healthy soil. The soil is seen as a living system and not simply a growing medium for plants. Compost, efficient nutrient recycling, frequent crop rotations and cover crops replace synthetic fertilizers to keep the soil healthy and productive.

Weed Control:

Organic Farmers have many options to control weeds including: hoes and other mechanical weeding implements, crop rotations, planting several crops together (intercropping), more efficient use of irrigation water, the use of mulches, and even adjusting the planting dates and densities of their crops.

Pest Control:

By encouraging biological diversity, farmers create conditions which reduce the likelihood of any insect, bird or mammal doing any major damage to their crop. To control pests, organic farmers may use beneficial predator insects, crop rotations, intercropping, and biological pesticides such as neem oil.


Step 2. Harvesting

Conventionally Harvested Cotton.

After the toxic debacle of the growing season, the chemical woes only continue. During harvesting, herbicides are used to defoliate cotton plants to make picking easier. The global consequences are that chemicals pollute ground water and rivers with potentially carcinogenic compounds. Large harvesting machinery compacts the ground reducing soil productivity.

Organic Harvested Cotton.

Organic cotton is often hand picked, especially in developing countries, without the use of defoliants, machinery, or chemicals. Hand picking also reduces waste.

Step 3. Cleaning & Ginning

So far, we have journeyed only to the end of the cotton field, but the story doesn't end there. Manufacturing cotton fiber into fabric and garments consists of several major processes cleaning, spinning, knitting or weaving, dyeing, cutting and assembly, finishing, and cleaning.

Before cotton fiber can be manufactured from cotton plants, several cleaning steps are required. After the plants have been processed at a cotton gin, the product is distributed to fiber producers. The fiber manufacturer further removes plant material and other debris by dividing and carding the lint. The waste from this process is a mixture of stems, leaves, soils, and lint.

Cotton is also an important food source for humans and animals. Cotton is comprised of 40% fiber and 60% seed by weight. Once separated in the gin, the fibers go to textile mills, while the seed and various ginning by-products are used for animal feed and for human food, mostly in the form of cottonseed oil. Cottonseed, which is rich in oil and high in protein, is a common ingredient in cookies, potato chips, salad dressings, baked goods, and other processed foods.

Conventional Cotton By-Products

With conventionally grown cotton, the pesticide residues from the cottonseeds concentrate in the fatty tissues of these animals, and end up in meat and dairy products.

Organic Cotton By-Products

Organically grown cotton can be used to produce organic food products for people and animals. Organic cotton is important not just in the clothing chain but also in the food chain.

Step 4. Manufacturing

Spinning, Weaving, Knitting, Dyeing, & Finishing

Conventionally manufactured cotton

Conventionally manufactured cotton must be chemically processed to become the soft fiber that consumers love. Although cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the United States, much of the pesticide and herbicide is bleached out or washed away during the manufacturing process, but a variety of toxic chemicals, oils, and waxes are used to manufacture, knit and weave convention cotton fabrics. The chemical residues of these processes constitute the major sensitivity problems experienced by people suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.

Only in the spinning process where cotton fibers are spun into yarn is cotton untouched by chemicals or oils. After spinning, the yarn receives a sizing to make the yarn easier to 'weave.

After weaving, the fabric is then bleached. Half the companies use hydrogen peroxide, but half still use highly toxic chlorine. Some of the companies where most garments are produced, are more likely to use chlorine.


The sizing is then removed from the fabric with a detergent. Next, it is washed or "scoured" with sodium hydroxide. Finally, it is piece-dyed) often with formaldehyde-fixing agents. An additional washing is needed to attempt to remove the formaldehyde fixing agents.

The last step is finishing and this is where many chemical sensitivity problems begin. A urea-formaldehyde product which cross-links molecules is routinely applied to cotton to reduce shrinkage and wrinkling. Cotton is a fiber designed by nature to absorb, and heat is used to lock finishes into 1he fiber. When heat is applied, this molecule expands and becomes permanently bound in the fiber. That is why it cannot be washed or dry cleaned cut.

"Pure finish" indicates that nothing has been applied to the fabric at this point, but this does not always guarantee that people who are chemically sensitive will be able to wear the garment. Detergents and softeners are heavily used in making fabrics, and some of these will leave a residue that will never wash out completely.

Knitted fabric goes through similar processes. To be knittable, yarn must be waxed and oiled. The knit fabric is then washed in detergents and softeners.

An anti-curl chemical is added to the wash for all jerseys and many fleeces.

Knit goods that are piece-dyed after knitting follow the same course as woven fabrics. Yarn-dyed knits are washed, framed, steamed, and finished with heat and, usually, formaldehyde resin.

Sweaters and some circular knits are just washed with detergent and softeners and tumble-dried to remove oils and to reduce shrinkage. No finish is put on them, but again their wearability depends on the chemicals used to wash and soften them. As with woven fabrics, heat is used as part of the processing and can actually lock chemicals into the fiber.

It is impossible to knot yarn without waxing and oiling and the oil must be washed out with some kind of detergent. Jerseys must be de-curled to lie flat on a table for cutting. Traditional cotton fabrics are often scoured, washed, and bleached with chlorine, APEO (alkylphenoloxylate, a hormone disrupter), EDTA (ethylenediamine tetra-acetate which binds with heavy metals in rivers and streams), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone. These toxic chemicals are slow to biodegrade and recent research has shown links to the production of "probable" carcinogens.

The dyeing and printing of conventional cotton fabrics often use compounds of iron, tin, potassium, VOCs and solvent based inks containing heavy metals, benzene, and organochlorides that require large quantities of water to wash out the dye residues. This waste water is polluted by these heavy metals.

The toxic residues found in the waste water can cause problems of the central nervous system, respiratory system, and skin, as well as head-aches, dizziness, and eye irritations.

Finishing is the final processing step for many conventional cotton garments to create easy care clothing that is soft, wrinkle-resistant, stain and odor resistant, fireproof, mothproof, and antistatic. Chemicals often used for finishing include formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, bromines, urea resins, sulfonamides, halogens, and bromines. The resulting waste water has a high acid content. Residual chemical traces on the fabric can cause burning eyes, nose, and throat, as well as difficulties with sleep, concentration, and memory and they can increase susceptibility to cancer. The emissions from these residual chemicals in conventional cotton fabric increase with temperature. Unless clothes are 100 percent organic, one should always wash new clothes or bedding first before wearing or putting on the bed. That "new" smell is a potent mixture of chemicals such as formaldehyde and urea resins that can be reduced through repeated washings.

Manufacturing organic cotton

At each manufacturing step, organic clothing manufacturers do not add petroleum scours, formaldehyde, antiwrinkling agents, chlorine bleaches, or other unauthentic materials. Natural alternatives such as natural spinning oils that biodegrade easily are used to facilitate spinning; potato starch is used for sizing; hydrogen peroxide is used for bleaching; organic color grown cottons and low-impact dyes and earth clays are used for coloration; and natural vegetable and mineral inks and binders are used for printing on organic cotton fabric. These natural alternatives are used to reduce and eliminate the toxic consequences found in conventional cotton fabric manufacturing.


Limitations to Organic Production

There are many reasons why organic cotton production has not extended to other countries. Nineteen countries tried to produce organic cotton during the 1990s. But many of them have already stopped, not for lack of desire or demand for such cotton, but for economic reasons. Insecticides need to be eliminated from the cotton production system because they are dangerous to apply, have long-term consequences on the pest complex, and deleterious effects on the environment.

Also, heavy reliance on pesticide use has pushed many countries out of cotton production. The Organic Trade Association undertook an extensive effort in 2002/03 to identify the problems with organic cotton production in the USA. The Organic Fiber Council of the Organic Trade Association contacted all organic cotton growers in the USA and tried to collect information through a survey. ICAC's survey focused on two issues:

  1. cost of production of organic cotton versus conventional cotton, and

  1. price premium on organic cotton

According to the survey undertaken by the Organic Fiber Council in 2002, the main problems for organic cotton producers are weed management in the absence of herbicide use; defoliation (due to the prohibition of herbicides) and insect control. Some farmers also complained about seed treatment, which is not permitted in organic certification. In the USA, even organic cotton is picked by machines, thus defoliation is a serious problem that handpicked cotton does not have.

The following factors have limited the expansion of organic cotton production. Suitable measures must be adopted to promote appropriate production practices if organic cotton production is to expand.

Certain comments may be specific to cotton, but most others will apply to organic production in general.

Suitable Varieties

Cotton producers in all nineteen countries mentioned adapted current varieties to organic production practices. Commercially grown varieties have been tested and developed for high input conditions. Under such conditions, any genotype not perform.

Organic Cotton Production in the World (tons)

Varieties performing well under optimum conditions may not be able to maintain their yield level without synthetic fertilizers and insecticides. Breeding material for organic cotton production has to be screened under organic conditions. Single plants, progeny rows or bulks should be continuously grown under organic conditions to select for organic production.

In the last three decades, emphasis has been placed on varieties shorter in stature, earlier in maturity and responsive to high doses of fertilizers.

Shifting effective fruiting positions closer to the main stem and on lower branches has been pursued. High responses to fertilizers and a shift in fruiting positions are desirable characters for high input use, but may not be desirable in the absence of synthetic fertilizers. Varieties that are suitable for high fertilizer use have been grown under organic conditions.

Consequently, such varieties must have suffered heavier losses in yield than expected, discouraging farmers from continuing organic production. There is a need to develop varieties suitable for organic production conditions, maybe not as high yielding as normal varieties but hardy and able to produce good yields under organic conditions. Varieties for organic production must be developed under organic conditions.


Fertilizer Use

Synthetic fertilizers are applied to cotton and to other crops in order to meet nutrient needs for the plant. Nutrient needs change from minimum to maximum for N, P and K during the course of development. Nitrogen, which leaches with water and can be lost through evaporation, must be applied when needed for optimum plant growth and fruit bearing. This is the reason why the timing of applications and dosage are critical for realizing optimum yields.

P and K can stay in the soil and be used when needed, but yields are seriously affected if the timing or dosage for nitrogen are changed.

Short stature plants are expected to behave differently in the absence of synthetic inorganic fertilizers. Early maturing varieties, which are usually shorter in stature, enter into the fruiting phase earlier than tall growing cultivars and are also meant to form bolls

at a higher rate. Such genotypes need fertilizers from the soil and any setback at this stage is directly related to loss in yield.

Green manuring and organic fertilization can be employed to maintain the required nutrient supply, but the availability of nitrogen to the level of inorganic fertilization cannot be achieved. There is a need to find better alternatives for synthetic fertilizers so that the plant does not suffer due to insufficient nutrient supply, particularly nitrogen.

Pest Control

The cotton plant is naturally vulnerable to a variety of insects, which are going to attack under organic growing conditions. Insect pressure can be lowered by enhancing biological controls to compensate for the lack of insecticide use.

The cotton plant has one of the best built-in compensation systems of many field crops. It can make up early losses, but it cannot make up for a loss suffered after a certain time because cotton growing condition have a certain cut-out period when plant ceases to bear more flowers bolls.

This happens because the plant becomes physiologically exhausted and is unable to carry out physiological processes at the required rate, or because ambient conditions have changed and do not allow for normal growth. All out efforts have to be made to save the maximum number of buds, flowers and bolls from the very beginning, as provided by insecticides. Hence, it is necessary to find alternate means of insect control. Multi-adversity resistance can play a greater role in organic cotton production than in conventional cotton growing.

Production Technology

Conventional cotton requires a technology package that includes the best use of inputs and production practices. Systems of disseminating the package might differ, but in most countries, it is free and delivered directly by the extension service to farmers' doorsteps.

The advice, or technology package, on how a producer can achieve maximum yield includes guidance, from variety selection, planting time, soil preparation, elimination of weeds, irrigation, insect control, all the way to picking and storage of seed cotton until it is sold.

Organic cotton farmers need advice, without which they can be risking their investment. Unfortunately, whatever little advice on organic cotton is available is not equivalent to conventional production technology packages.

It is wrong to assume that the elimination of fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals would simplify cotton production practices. On the contrary, it is more challenging to grow cotton without agrochemicals, but organic cotton growers lack advice on recommended production practices.

Lack of Information on Cost of Production

Unfortunately, information on cost of production of organic cotton versus conventional production under various sets of production conditions is not available. In the absence of such information, farmers are reluctant to adopt organic production.


Price Premium

It is anticipated that certified organic cotton will fetch a premium price. How ever, it has been seen that organic producers have not received premiums. Data have been collected for over ten years in many countries, but there is no conclusion regarding the average premium or discount on organic cotton versus conventional cotton.

Without a price premium, organic cotton will not be profitable because of reductions in yield. Solid indications that price premiums can be expected would encourage organic production.

Need for Alternate Inputs

Synthetic fertilizers and insecticides were adopted because of the high benefit-cost ratios. The impact of fertilizer and insecticide use is quick and very effective. Nitrogen can be applied and becomes available to the plant immediately, or it can be applied for slow release. Herbicides and insecticides provide immediate effects.

The elimination of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides deprives the plant two major safeguards, i.e. protection against nutrient starvation and protection against insect pests, unless alternative systems with equally quick and effective action are available.

Unfortunately such alternatives are not available. Manual and mechanical means of weed control exist but they are not feasible for large scale farming systems, and alternatives to insecticides and fertilizers are slow in action.

About the Author:

Edward Menezes is associated with Rossari Biotech, Mumbai.

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