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A chemical helps organic cotton

For the last few years, we’ve heard organic cotton associations talk about the demand growth for organic cotton apparel and a subsequent growth in planting and production of organic cotton.

As we know, organic has to meet certification standards for non-chemical insect control. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, management options include trap cropping, strip cropping and managing border vegetation to encourage high populations of native beneficials.

These are general practices for all insects, but I doubt very seriously that any organic method ever existed that would consistently bring the incomparable boll weevil to its knees.

This is borne out by NSAIS, which says, “conventional controls (for weevil) consist of applying pesticides to target the adults when they start feeding and laying eggs. For organic systems, using this approach with organically accepted pesticides would be too costly and only moderately effective.”

NSAIS did recommend “the use of a short-season cotton variety to escape significant damage caused by the second generation of weevils, through early fruiting and harvest. For this to occur, the population of first generation weevils must also be low. Crop residue management and field sanitation is essential. Destruction of cotton stalks soon after harvest has long been recognized as a useful practice for reducing the number of overwintering weevils.”

A short-season variety can help and indeed this was a practice employed by many conventional cotton producers during the weevil’s reign. But it was more of an exit strategy than a control method and certainly resulted in some loss of yield. As any battle-tested weevil fighter from the old days can tell you, when weevils hit a field, it’s time to break out the heavy artillery.

The fact that weevils preferred no other host to cotton became the basis for the concept of an ambitious program called boll weevil eradication. The idea was that they could be eradicated through precisely-timed, zone-spraying of a pesticide with the help of pheromone traps and geographical information systems.

An organophosphate chemical called malathion was selected as the pesticide, and trials got under way in Virginia and North Carolina in 1978. There were bumps and bruises along the way, but soon, the program started making headway. Today, it’s been nothing short of wildly successful.

And that brings us back to organic cotton. As we get closer and closer to the day when weevils are completely eradicated, organic cotton producers are increasing acreage and production, albeit it’s still only a fraction of the total crop.

I sincerely believe they owe a debt of gratitude to an often-maligned organophosphate called malathion. It was used responsibly, cost-effectively and according to label directions, to eliminate a voracious cotton pest. This provided a huge benefit to not only cotton producers, but to the environment as well. All cotton producers, whether conventional or organic, owe much to this product.


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