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COTTON: WHY CHOOSE ORGANIC?

As a consumer, when you think of cotton, you think: natural, soft to theskin, best quality, good choice! But today, we are urged to be informed consumers, to question the processes which bring products to the market. We can't actually be present to see all of the steps of production. Therefore,it becomes our responsibility to educate ourselves about what goes on behind the scenes. Let's consider what is involved in cotton production so that when you choose to spend your dollars, they are spent wisely. First, we willtake an overview of how cotton is grown conventionally and then compare itto the practices used in organic cotton cultivation.

Cotton is farmed in warm climates in many countries around the world. After plants reach maturity, the cotton bolls are harvested for their longcellulose fibers on the cotton seeds. The remaining cotton seeds are processed to yield cotton seed oil for use in our food products andc ottonseed meal for use in animal feed.

Most cotton farmers now use growing methods referred to as conventional cotton farming. Firstly, farmland is treated with concentrated fertilizersto boost plant growth. During the course of the growing season, the cotton crop gets sprayed numerous times with synthetic pesticides aimed at eliminating weeds, insects, and any microbes which could challenge the yield of the final cotton harvest. Unfortunately, cotton is the most intensivelysprayed crop grown today. Chemical companies provide a predeter mined spray schedule for farmers to follow so that any guesswork about what might begoing on in the field is eliminated. A erial spraying is utilized to provide coverage for large cotton fields, contributing to aerial drift of these pesticides and exposing unintended targets to their effects. These synthetic herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides include many highly toxic compounds which linger in the environment, endangering ecosystems, water supplies, and of course, endangering the farm workers directly exposed tothem. The final step before the cotton harvest entails the application of defoliants to ease the mechanical harvest of the cotton bolls. By the finishof a single growing season, the soil structure has been depleted and the environment has paid quite a toll.

Complicating this picture are considerations about lack of pesticide application regulations outside of the United States where cotton is grown (as well as other food crops imported here). Some of the pesticides, which have now been banned in the U.S., are still applied to farm fields in other countries, posing increased risks to the environment, to farm workers inthose countries, and to consumers.

All over the globe, insect pests and weeds are developing resistance to thepesticides which have been repeatedly applied to farm fields, resulting inadditional applications of these chemicals to achieve their targeted effect. As a result of increased resistance to herbicides in weed populations, crop strains have been designed to withstand even more concentrated applications of herbicides to the fields. Already more than half of the cotton acreage planted in the U.S. was bioengineered to withstand extra heavy herbicide applications.

Yet other considerations in this story entail the final steps in bringing cotton to the marketplace. As a consumer in a shop, no information will beoffered to you concerning the dyes and finishing chemicals applied to this"natural' product. Some dyes utilize heavy metals, and dye processes canresult in polluting waste discharge into the environment. Finally, chemicals are applied to give the fabric its finish, sometimes a sheen. Formaldehyde may also be used to prevent wrinkling in the finished product.Today's newspapers commonly report increased prevalence for various types of cancers. Studies have shown that certain frog populations have died outupwind from heavily farmed areas. Increased birth defects are reported inbird populations where farm runoff accumulates. Pesticide residues are foundin the rivers and groundwaters which serve as our drinking water sources. Residues of pesticides have been measured in human amniotic fluid; theyaccumulate in fatty tissues and have been found in human breast milk. Dioxins, by-products discharged from chlorine bleaching processes (whitecotton, white paper, etc.), is a potent carcinogen that is now commonly found in oceans and smaller waterways and accumulates in fatty tissues of animals. As you are aware, the list of repercussions continues. Unfortunately, even with the publication of findings about the overuse of dangerous synthetic pesticides, their use on conventional cotton alone continued to increase during the past decade.

In response to the growing awareness of the risks and dangers posed bythese conventional farming practices, some farmers have taken interest inthe organic farming movement. For some farmers, personal health concernss parked the change in their practices, and for others, increased use of technology brought on a new range of problems in their fields. The organic market began to open up, and now, increasing acreage is being devoted to raising organically grown cotton.

To earn certification as organic cotton, the soil must be free from toxicchemical applications for a minimum of three years. The health of the soilstructure is regained with the application of organic fertilizers, such as compost. The balance of microbes in the soil is regained with time, as opposed to the sterile environment maintained with a conventional spray regimen. Beneficial insects and naturally derived compounds keep pest populations in check. Close visual inspections of the fields are necessary to monitor the health status of the cotton - the organic farming system mustmaintain a diverse eco system in the fields. Crop rotations are establishedto optimize soil fertility. For example, every seventh year, alfalfa may begrown to build nitrogen content of the soil and to choke out problem weed farming practices.

After the organic cotton is harvested, it is processed in specially cleaned equipment at the textile mills. Finally, to meet market demands, the finished fabrics are colored with natural dyes or with low-impact dyes, which are designe despecially to minimize negative impact on the environment. Alternatively,organic cotton is also offered in 'color-grown' brown or green tones, whichmeans that special varieties of cotton grow the fibers on their seeds inthose color tones.

As consumers, we can increase the organic cotton market by demanding thisproduct from the big brand names which we commonly find in stores. A few companies have already bought small amounts of organic cotton to blend into their cotton products, and they must be encouraged to increase their organic cotton useage to ensure that this action becomes a part of a growing trendand not merely a political gesture.

Consumers are lucky to have the option to choose organically grown cotton products. More companies are offering choices, and the Internet has made them more easily accessible. Start by searching for sources of organic cotton products for all of your cotton needs. You'll find clothing,personal care products, toys, bedding, furniture, and more!


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