The Cotton Controversy: Does Green Have To Be At Odds With Our Whites?

We make it part of our mission to promote the practice of thoughtful, eco-minded shopping—which you can see everywhere on Refinery29, from Amber Valleta's treatise about responsibly made clothing to Greta Eagan's four-point checklist on how to shop without being evil.
And, in a lot of these conversations, conventional cotton crops up as "The Bad Guy," a claim that is always supported by the same facts and figures about pesticide use, health risks, and the dangers of GMOs. However, these conversations rarely include the cotton industry, and that's not totally fair.

So, in the spirit of constructive conversation, we invited eco-journalist Alden Wicker of Ecocult and senior direct of Cotton Inc.'s agricultural and environmental research team, Dr. Edward M. Barnes, to talk through the points and counterpoints of how cotton really affects the planet.
evil_cotton_slide1Designed by Anna Sudit.
You wouldn't think a nice, bland textile like cotton would be so controversial. But "The Fabric of Our Lives" has become a flashpoint in the battle for more sustainable and ethical clothing. Advocates of eco-friendly fashion accuse the cotton industry of heavy pesticide and herbicide use, dangerous working conditions, and even putting the consumer's health at risk when we wear its products.
Given how passionate I am about the aforementioned issues, I jumped at the chance to debate a real, live cotton scientist. As a 12-year employee of Cotton Inc., Dr. Ed Barnes’ loyalties definitely lie with conventional cotton. But, I hoped he, being a scientist, would treat me to some real talk.
Before we spoke, I spent some time talking to sustainable-fashion advocates and gathering the latest data on the cotton industry. I wanted to go into this debate with the objective facts, check my biases at the door, and keep my mind open to opposing views. In fact, I did learn a thing or two about cotton. And, I think Dr. Barnes did, too.
Alden Wicker: Thank you for speaking with me. As you know, the impetus for this interview was Amber Valletta’s April story for Refinery29. The first thing said was that conventionally grown cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed plants in farming.
Ed Barnes: That is definitely not the case. Critics like to say that cotton uses 25% of the world’s pesticides. It’s one of the urban legends that floats out there on the Internet. Global data is hard to get, but we use data from Cropnosis that tracks sales of pesticides around the world. It’s not the perfect data source, since it’s based on dollar values, but we know that cotton uses about 6% of pesticides used. This was surprising to me, but there’s a lot more pesticide use in fruits and vegetables.
Editor's note: However, also according to Cropnosis, a private company in the U.K., cotton’s share by value of global pesticide consumption declined from 11% in 1988 to 6.8% (worth $3 billion) in 2008. Similarly, the share of insecticide use declined from 19% in 2000 to 15.7% in 2008.
Cotton in the U.S. is regulated as a food crop, because it is a food crop. For every pound of cotton fiber we get, there is a pound and a half of cotton seed produced. Oil is pressed out of it, which is commonly used as fry oil in restaurants. A lot of cotton seed is used to feed to cows. If there’s a pesticide that’s not allowed for food crops, it’s not allowed for cotton.
AW: The USDA estimates that between 1996 and 2007, the amount of glyphosate, which is the herbicide most commonly referred to as Roundup, applied per acre per crop rose 200%.
EB: If you look at Roundup, it’s one of the safest herbicides, if you’re an animal. It’s actually a very nice compound, environmentally speaking. It has low persistence in the environment.
AW: There was a study in Entropy last year that says that glyphosate can combine with other environmental toxins and has been linked to Parkinson’s, infertility, and cancer. You’re not saying it’s completely safe. You can’t drink it. You’re supposed to wear protective clothing when you use it.
EB: Nothing is completely safe. You can kill yourself if you eat enough salt. The Roundup we’re talking about is the same Roundup you can go to Target or Walmart and pick up off the shelf. As herbicides go, it’s toward the safe end. The point of increased glyphosate use is that it has replaced other herbicides that have a greater environmental risk.
AW: It’s interesting you bring that up, because there’s a lot of talk among farmers that plants are becoming Roundup resistant; they’re called "superweeds." Half of farmers interviewed in a 2012 survey reported that they were finding glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farms. One of the responses to that is, of course, spraying more, but also developing different, more-toxic herbicides.
EB: That is a concern. We have resistant-management plans for farmers to implement. One of the things is that there are very few new chemistries being introduced in agriculture. It’s misleading to say we’re getting new, more hazardous compounds. The ones we are getting tend to be safer, because they’re under more regulatory scrutiny. But, we are having to go back to other herbicides that were not as safe as Roundup.
If you don’t have an herbicide, every weed is a superweed, because the only way to control it is to plow it under or pull it out by hand. Our food security is threatened if we don’t stay ahead of that resistance. I’m hopeful that every chemical company in the world right now has [its] scientists working to find new compounds, because the labor it would take to replace that sprayer would be enormous. It might solve our employment problem.
AW: There's also criticism that we end up absorbing chemicals when we wear cotton clothes.
EB: First of all, all the chemistries we’re using are approved for use on food crops. And secondly, most of the time the cotton plant is growing, the fiber is inside a boll [the rounded seed capsule]. The insecticides are applied before the boll opens. Most fibers are never exposed to those chemistries.
Any chemistries that did get on the fiber, then you have textile processing. If there’s any wet processing, any residuals would be washed off. The Bremen Cotton Exchange takes raw fiber bales — cotton taken straight from the gin — from cotton from around the world. More than 90% of the time, even before the wet processing, there [are] no residues detected. The probability of any of that making it to a consumer product is about as close to 0% as you can get.
AW: I’m not going to contest your assertion that there is no pesticide residue on clothes. But, I will say that cotton goes through a lot of processing before we put it on our bodies, and some of that is to treat it with agents like formaldehyde, especially for wrinkle-free shirts. So, to say that the cotton on your body — especially from conventional textile and clothing companies — is completely pure would be very misleading.
EB: Whether it’s conventional or organic, cotton can be subject to textile chemistries. That’s not my area of expertise. But, I will say that there are a lot of efforts to find alternatives to formaldehyde.
AW: You know, I feel like at the base of this conversation is a discussion of acceptable levels of risk.
EB: That’s a good way to put it.
AW: This goes back to so many things (food, beauty products); how much is acceptable? How many parts per million are okay for us to ingest or wear? These two sides of the debate — pro-organic and pro-conventional — have a fundamental disconnect. People who are pro-organic are saying, “I’m not comfortable with any risk. I want to be completely sure.” And, that is something that is followed in the EU with the precautionary principle: If we suspect something is toxic, we want to take it off the market and test it thoroughly before we put it on the market. Whereas in the U.S., we want to definitively prove several ways that it is actually bad for us before we take it off the market.
It sounds like you fall on the side of, “There is an acceptable amount of risk. I’m okay with Roundup being somewhat toxic, but safe for a consumer to use. I’m okay with the amount of pesticides we do spray, because it’s much lower than what it used to be.” Is that correct?
EB: I think considering risk is important. That’s basically the strategy that the EPA takes, in assessing all products for consumers.
AW: You already talked about how cotton shows up in our food stream as well. There were studies in Brazil and Nicaragua that found that glyphosate residue had been found in cows' milk. Meaning that it had made it from the seed to the cow, through the cow to the milk, and then to the consumer.
EB: I would like to see that study. There’s quite a bit of scrutiny of the purity of the seed. I find that surprising and quite frankly hard to believe.
AW: Some people have asserted that the use of the pesticides and herbicides can lead to cancer, though there hasn’t been any causation found. But glyphosate has been detected in the urine of farmers and their children. There are risks these farmers take in using these inputs.
EB: I won’t debate that.
AW: One thing I did want to talk about is that Cotton Inc. represents farmers in the U.S., correct?
EB: We’re funded by U.S. cotton farmers and people that import finished cotton goods into the United States.
AW: Regulation of cotton in the U.S. is stringent. But, this doesn’t apply to other countries where cotton is grown, especially India and China, where we import a lot of cotton from.
EB: That is true. In the U.S., we definitely have an excellent regulatory system. I’ll go back to that Bremen study — they weren’t just testing U.S. cotton. They were looking for residues on cottons around the world, and weren’t really finding it.
AW: These concerns that consumers have about conventional cotton extend beyond their own exposure to the kind of work conditions that cotton workers have in other countries. With the loose regulations in India and other places in Asia, international farmers are spraying pesticides that have been banned for use by hand with no protection.
EB: We do worry about workers around the world. There’s progress being made. In the '50s and '60s, when compounds got outlawed in the U.S., they got dumped in third-world markets. But, in the last 10 to 15 years, that practice has stopped. These global chemical companies don’t want their product showing up as something that killed agricultural workers in India.
AW: If I want to buy U.S.-grown cotton as a consumer, is there any way for me to walk into a store and pick up a shirt or sundress and know where that cotton was grown and under what conditions?
EB: Not really. If it’s textile made in the U.S., it’s a very high likelihood it’s grown in the U.S. We import very little raw cotton. There are brands that are calling out the traceability of their products.
AW: Like Raleigh Denim.
EB: Yes. And, a lot of companies that are making textiles in Central America are using American cotton. About 70% of the cotton we grow is exported to China, turned into garments, and sent back to the U.S.
AW: It's been said that if you’re concerned about eating GMOs, you should be concerned about conventional cotton products. This is a very contentious issue for the consumer; not just because of questions about their safety, but also because of the way they shape the economic structure of cotton farming, in the sense that Monsanto owns the patents on the seeds — 97% of cotton is GMO. You have to re-buy the seeds every year, you have to invest a lot into chemicals. It consolidates a lot of the money to landowners, and corporations like Monsanto, who own the seeds even when they are on the farm.
EB: One of the reasons we’ve seen huge declines in pesticide use is because we’ve bioengineered cotton to be resistant to boll worms. Biotechnology reduces pesticide use. About the investment, I can see where that can be a concern. They have to pay a technology fee in addition to the cost of the seed to Bayer or Syngenta or Monsanto. We’ve had U.S. producers who have said they don’t want to pay for biotech seed, and they come right back. They say, “Wow, that was a mistake.” People want to demonize some of these companies, but in reality what they’ve brought is an incredible new tool.
Non-biotech are still out there, but nobody buys them. In China and India, there's an above-70% adoption rate within small farmers. There are some people who say that these farmers are being manipulated, but these farmers are businessmen who have made a decision to invest in these seeds. India has basically doubled their yield in ten years.
AW: There’s a huge drought out west going on right now. I'd like to talk about the water usage that comes with growing cotton. It does take more water to grow cotton than other food crops.
EB: Actually, it doesn’t take more water. It takes about the same water it takes to grow an acre of cotton as it does to grow an acre of corn or soybeans. Cotton, no matter what environment, will always use less water than your lawn. Where we grow cotton in the desert, our strategy in drought years is that you just don’t grow cotton, and that is what farmers are doing in California.
One of my pet peeves is that cotton is portrayed as a water-thirsty crop. In reality, it’s one of the most drought-tolerant crops out there. If farmers don’t have irrigation, it’s about the only thing they grow. It’s heat and drought tolerant, so it’s grown in areas where water is limited. So, it ends up getting caught in these battles over water. It’s guilt by association.
AW: There are organic cotton farmers out there, and they’ve been upset because if you grow organic cotton, you get a premium for it. Unless, of course, your field gets contaminated with these biotechnology seeds. There was a lawsuit last year where a bunch of organic farmers banded together and asked that biotech companies take responsibility for the contamination, which these farmers have no control over. It’s almost impossible to opt out of the GMO system.
EB: I think organic is an important niche market. There are challenges faced by organic producers. There are so many benefits to come from biotechnology, I think we need to find a way to keep both of those going and not make it a conflict between the two.

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