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Organic— why criticize conventional cotton?

The Organic Exchange is starting to clean up its act, well, sort of.

The organization, which is dedicated to the promotion of organic crops, particularly organic cotton, has toned down the spread of misinformation about conventional cotton.

But it still persists in attacking it. It’s as though the organization doesn’t believe that organic cotton has enough appeal to stand on its own.

Back in 2006, I wrote about Wal-Mart publishing the following about conventional cotton’s environmental footprint (Cotton industry running down myths and misinformation.)

“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. 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.”

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An analysis by Cotton Incorporated found Organic Exchange’s math to be ludicrous. 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 of lint.

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

According to Cotton Incorporated, 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. Organic Exchange calculations contained an error of 500X.

While gross miscalculation appears to no longer be a promotion tactic for Organic Exchange, their brochures still contain misinformation.

For example, a brochure on the Organic Exchange Web site ( had this to say about conventionally grown cotton, “Conventional farming devours roughly a third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to produce enough cotton for a single T-shirt.”

On the surface, the statement is roughly accurate. But Cotton Incorporated studies indicate that it takes only 0.038 ounce of pesticide to grow a single cotton t-shirt. This means that 99.8 percent of the third of a pound is fertilizer. Obviously, their marketing plan is to create unsubstantiated fear of pesticides, then overstate their use.

Conventional cotton production is not perfect, but it is the system we use to clothe the world. Noted Cotton Incorporated president and CEO Berrye Worsham, “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.”

The bottom line is that each system has its place in cotton production. In fact, many organic cotton producers are also conventional cotton producers. It’s time to stop pitting them against each other — let organic cotton stand on its own merit.


TAGS: Cotton
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