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Cotton industry running down myths and misinformation

The numbers didn’t look right, but there it was in black and white. A Web site for a major U.S. retailer stating that 200,000 garments made from organic cotton saved enough pesticide to fill two jumbo jets.

Could that be right?

A few quick calculations and a minute or two on the Internet allows this comparison. If a jumbo jet’s fuel tank capacity is 40,000 gallons and each gallon weighs roughly 6 pounds, then the total weight of fuel comes to 240,000 pounds. Two of the big jets would carry roughly 480,000 pounds of fuel.

Hence, it took almost 2.5 pounds of pesticide to produce each outfit. If each product used a pound of raw fiber, the cost of the pesticide would far exceed the price that the farmer received for his pound of cotton.

Or maybe that was two mini-vans?

According to Cotton Incorporated this is one of many examples of the flow of misinformation about cotton going out over cyberspace, the airwaves and print media. For example, the aforementioned mugging of conventional cotton occurred on a Wal-Mart Web site in the fall of 2005 as a result of information it received from the Organic Exchange.

This is another conclusion from the same retailer regarding the sale of the garments:

“One example of what we can achieve came from experimenting with organic cotton. We introduced organic cotton outfits to 290 stores this year, and our customers bought virtually all of them in just 10 weeks — that’s 190,000 units. So, we expanded our organic practice to include select bath, bed and baby products.

“From just these few orders in a limited number of stores, the Organic Exchange has informed us we will have saved more than 500,000 pounds of pesticides and herbicides from being used, and have become the largest single purchaser of 100 percent organic cotton products in the world. We see these as encouraging steps in the right direction and are already planning to expand these types of practices into other business units and merchandise areas.”

Again, the math doesn’t work, according to an analysis by Cotton Incorporated. If 1 pound of fiber was consumed for each unit sold, then 190,000 pounds of fiber were used to produce the organic outfits. When you divide 190,000 pounds of cotton into 500,000 pounds of pesticide, you get 2.6 pounds of pesticide per pound.

At an average yield of 750 pounds of cotton yield per acre, this would imply on average, that 1,950 pounds of pesticides are used per acre on a commercial cotton operation.

The economic suicide and environmental disaster of such an astronomical application aside, in reality only about 1 pound of insecticide and 2.3 pounds of herbicides are applied to the cotton crop per acre during the season, according to Roy Cantrell, vice president, breeding, genetics and biotechnology, Cotton Incorporated. The Wal-Mart calculations contain an error of 500X.

“A lot of these myths get recycled whether it’s the amount of pesticides that are used or the amount of water that’s used and labor required. The latest cycle is somewhat different because we are in a global sourcing economy. Cotton is moved all over the world. The environmental angle gets mixed with other political angles and fair trade. It almost becomes a lethal mix when you combine enough misinformation. It almost becomes fact in the minds of the retailers and brands.”

Another myth reported as fact is that cotton accounts for 25 percent of all pesticide use in the world and that it takes 6 ounces of pesticides to grow cotton for one shirt.

In reality, notes Cantrell, “Cotton accounts for 8.5 percent of the world’s use of pesticides. In the United States, where data are available, about 0.038 ounce of pesticides are used to grow enough cotton for a t-shirt. They’re off by a factor of 150X.”

Cantrell notes that biotechnology has allowed U.S. producers to decrease pesticide applications and increase yields, both of which have significant environmental benefits. But the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture doesn’t think so. Here is a comment from its Web site:

“The rapid spread of genetic engineering in agriculture poses grave threats to family farmers and sustainable agriculture. Transgenic manipulation has emerged as a strong component of industrial agriculture, boasting unsubstantiated promises of increasing food production for the world’s hungry masses and solving disease and pest problems.

“However, genetically engineered crops do not increase yields, but rather, result in a tremendous increase in pesticide use, pose potential health threats for consumers as well as serious environmental impacts, and serve to significantly consolidate corporate control.

“Moreover, genetically engineered agriculture products have had a negative economic impact on many sustainable and organic family farmers, in part due to lost export markets in Europe and Asia.”

While Cotton Incorporated is quick to stress that no one in the cotton industry is slamming organic cotton, it’s not the worldwide solution to sustainability as some insist, according to Berrye Worsham, Cotton Incorporated president and CEO. He noted that organic cotton production comprises only about 115,000 bales globally out of a 110-million bale world market, or less than 0.1 percent. All global organic cotton production in 2005 would fit on a single average size cargo ship.

“Organic is not sustainable in the sense that you can ramp that production up to meet the total needs of the market. Sustainability is not just about organic cotton. It’s about good production practices that are good for the environment.”


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