Why Organic Cotton? Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of this series, you can read it here. Organic farmers, withdrawing from the cotton industry’s long allegiance to exploitative labor practices, are participating in a more transparent economy that eliminates hidden costs to production workers and the environment.

Cotton is a natural and renewable fiber. Every year, the global cotton crop sequesters an amount of carbon comparable to that emitted by seven million cars. This potential has never been fully realized, as non-organic cotton is doused in fertilizers that emit nitrous oxide—the most powerful of all the greenhouse gases, and 300 times more destructive by weight than carbon dioxide.

Organic cotton is grown with natural fertilizers, like compost, that recycle the nitrogen found in healthy soil. Conventional cotton is grown with chemical fertilizers to supplement nitrogen levels. Why? Because manufacturers of genetically modified cotton stipulate that it be planted as a monocrop, a practice that degrades soil health. Degraded soil contains less of the organic matter that helps absorb water. When water is not absorbed, the runoff carries away soil and any chemicals that have been applied to it. Runoff makes its way into rivers, where higher sediment loads disrupt freshwater ecosystems. When the rivers into flow into larger aquatic environments, the fertilizers in the runoff feed algal blooms, depleting oxygen levels and ultimately yielding dead zones devoid of life. 

Because organic farmers are not restricted by GMO intellectual property rights, they are free to plant other crops alongside and in-between rows of cotton. This slows the growth of pest populations. To avoid using chemical insecticides, organic farmers also rotate the crops grown on their fields, and they encourage the presence of natural cotton pest predators. They may border their fields with sunflowers or marigolds to lure insects away. 

As more farmers choose to prioritize the long-term health of their fields and the surrounding ecosystems, it is up to consumers to invest in the bold new path they are charting for the world’s dirtiest crop.

Christian Birky