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Robinson: It’s not easy being green

In past months, our organic cotton marketing association friends have been at it again, claiming through various news sources that organic cotton is: softer than conventional cotton; costs less to grow; and yields more.

Believe me, if conventional cotton producers could have it this easy, they’d chunk their chemical tanks in a New York second, hire a hundred or so people away from their factory jobs in the city to chop cotton and wait for the merchants and mills to wheelbarrow in the cash.

Unfortunately, the realities of cotton production can be harsh for both conventional and organic operations, despite any effort to paint one or the other in idyllic terms.

So lets stick to the point at hand, myth versus fact.

An article appearing in Apparel magazine cleverly named “Organic Cotton: It’s Not Just for Tree Huggers Anymore,” contained a paragraph attributed to Rebecca Calahan Klein of the Organic Exchange, that went like this, “Yields of organic cotton are typically lower during the first several years of farming on organic land, but typically after 3 to 7 years, the yields are as good and in some cases better than those of conventional cotton farms.”

I don’t doubt the origin or authenticity of this information, really, I don’t. After all, Klein is responsible for marketing organic cotton, and marketing, as we all know, is often the relentless pursuit of some of the facts.

And so, I found a University of California study that showed organic yields significantly higher than conventional cotton in the first few years of an analysis, then falling to 75 percent of conventional cotton yields in the last few years of the study. Part of the reason for the improvement in conventional cotton yields was that Bt cotton was introduced during the last four years of the study, while organic cotton yields fell for some unknown reason.

It also should be noted that more research on organic cotton could help push yields higher, and there are examples of some individual organic cotton producers attaining impressive yields.

The reporter for Apparel went on to state that with organic cotton, “lower costs resulting from the elimination of chemical pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers are significant.”

I counter with a six-year study in the San Joaquin Valley in 2002 indicating production costs for organic cotton run approximately 50 percent higher than those of conventional cotton. High manure costs is one of the more expensive items I sniffed out.

There is no scientific proof that organic cotton is softer than conventional cotton, as acclaimed in the Apparel article. What I suspect is that a single individual thought organic cotton felt smoother, and subsequently informed a friend with Internet access and his or her Web site. The next day, it was instant “anecdotal evidence,” which, as we all know, is almost as good as “the truth.”

But the real truth is that there is no difference between organic cotton and conventional cotton in terms of softness. The terms organic and conventional only refer to the method by which the cotton was produced.

Organic cotton producers have found a way to differentiate their product from the commodity, and should be commended. The “green” approach has brought them higher prices, albeit a more volatile market. But the general public should not be mislead into thinking that organic cotton is the sustainable way to provide all the world’s fiber needs.

Every shirt, every pair of underwear made in the world comes at a cost. Sure chemicals used in conventional cotton can be dangerous if an off-label application is made. But think of how many good backs have been ruined chopping cotton, a popular means of weed control in organic cotton.

In the words of Deer Creek’s own Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being green.”


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