What’s the dirtiest crop on the planet? You may be wearing it.
Cotton earned the title “dirtiest crop” because it’s sprayed with some of the worst pesticides, including: Bayer’s aldicarb, which was banned in the U.S. in 2010, but reapproved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016; Syngenta’s paraquat, a highly toxic pesticide banned in the European Union but not in the U.S.; and Monsanto’s glyphosate, classified by the World Health Organization as a “probable” human carcinogen.
Those and other toxic chemicals associated with cotton production pollute waterways and damage the health of farmworkers. They also contaminate consumer products.
GMO cotton isn’t just used to make clothes, bedding, towels and other textile products. Cottonseed oil and other cotton crop waste products also end up in hundreds of processed foods.
Consumers should be just as concerned about wearing GMO cotton (or drying off with it or sleeping on it) as they are about ingesting it.
The best way to avoid GMO cotton textiles? Buy certified organic.
Here are nine reasons to choose organic clothing, bedding and other products:
1. Protect the oceans from microfiber pollution
Conventional cotton used for clothing and textiles is usually combined with synthetic fabrics such as acrylic, fleece and polyester. Research shows that during washing, these synthetic fibers are released into our waterways, in the form of microfibers.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources estimates that around 1.7 million tons of microfibers enter the ocean each year, threatening marine species and sensitive coral reef ecosystems.
Don’t want to contribute to the problem? Avoid synthetic fabrics altogether, including conventional cotton blends. Instead, choose clothing and textiles made from 100 percent pure and organic cotton.
2. Protect the livelihoods of cotton farmers
In 2002, Monsanto introduced in India a pest-resistant cotton, genetically engineered with a gene from the bacteria Bacillus thurengiensis or Bt. Bt cotton plants produce a toxin that kills the bollworm, one of the crop’s primary pests.
According to Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Monsanto promised that its Bt cotton would reduce the amount of pesticides farmers needed to buy, and increase yields and farm income by reducing crop losses due to pest attacks.
But GMO cotton failed in India. Farmers found that:
- Bt cotton yields declined
- Secondary pests emerged, forcing increased pesticide use
- The price of cotton seed rose
- Farmers lost the option to buy non-GM cotton seed.
The failure of Bt cotton took a heavy toll on farmers, and was widely blamed for a staggering increase in Indian farmers suicides.
3. Conserve global water and energy resources
It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce enough cotton for a pair of jeans. In fact, the water needs of cotton are so high that cotton production has contributed to the draining of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.
Organic cotton has a much lower environmental footprint. Production of organic cotton takes 71 percent less water and 62 percent less energy than production of conventional GMO cotton.
4. Reduce your exposure to hazardous insecticides and pesticides
Conventionally grown GMO cotton is one of the most toxic crops in the world. It makes up only 2.5 percent of global cropland, and yet it accounts for up to 25 percent of the world’s use of insecticides.
In addition to being responsible for the use of toxic chemicals such as aldicarb and paraquat, GMO cotton is sprayed with large amounts of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was classified as “probably carcinogenic to human,” by the World Health Organization. Glyphosate has been linked to metabolic syndrome, obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, cancer and depression.
Organic cotton farmers use only organic-approved fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides from plants, animals and minerals to prevent pests and diseases. This slashes your risk of health issues, while also protecting farmworkers and reducing environmental pollution.
5. Help keep the food supply pesticide-free
According to Rodale Institute, most consumers aren’t aware of the following facts about conventional cotton’s effect on our food:
- Although cotton is not a food, cottonseed oil is produced for human consumption
- Cottonseed oil is used to produce Vitamin E
- Cottonseed oil is the primary ingredient in Crisco
- Cottonseed meal is fed to animals for dairy and meat production
- Leftover cotton cellulose fibers that are too short to be spun into textiles are used as food additives
- Cellulose from cotton fibers is added to a wide range of foods to thicken and stabilize the products
- Cellulose is used as a filler to extend serving sizes without increasing calories. Humans can’t break down or digest cellulose, so it’s being used to meet the demand for low-calorie, high-fiber foods
- Cellulose, which is basically a plastic, has migrated into numerous foods including cheese, cream, milk powder, flavored milks, ice cream, sherbet, whey products, processed fruits, cooked vegetables, canned beans, pre-cooked pastas, pre-cooked rice products, vinegars, mustard, soups, cider, salads, yeast, seasonings, sweeteners, soybean products, bakery items, breakfast cereals, including rolled oats, sports drinks and dietetic foods as a non-caloric filler
- Some brands of pizza cheese consist of cellulose coated cheese granules combined with silicon to aid in melting
Making sure these derivatives come from organic cotton prevents toxic pesticides and herbicides from contaminating the food supply.
6. Reduce your exposure to harsh chemicals used in the cotton manufacturing process
A variety of toxic chemicals are used in the manufacture of conventional cotton clothing, depending on where the garments are made and what characteristics the manufacturer wants to achieve.
For example, “easy care” garments that are marketed as antimicrobial, anti-odor and anti-wrinkle may be saturated in formaldehyde.
Azo-aniline dyes are also commonly used. These dyes can cause mild to severe skin irritations, especially where there is friction between your skin and the fabric.
Organic cotton products don’t use any of these chemicals, and use only low-impact and fiber-reactive dyes to get a lasting color.
7. Help provide better working conditions for cotton farmers
The conventional cotton industry has been linked to numerous human rights violations.
In Uzbekistan, Environmental Justice Foundation found widespread environmental and human right abuses in the cotton industry, including state-sponsored forced child labor. One-third of the Uzbekistan population works for the government-owned cotton industry. Workers have no access to protective gear or even a clean source of drinking water.
Buying products made of organic cotton promotes a safer work conditions for cotton farmers, by eliminating workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals.
8. Support regenerative agriculture
Responsible and sustainable organic cotton production provides a variety of environmental benefits, including reduced soil inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, decreased fertilizer runoff, lower field emissions and less irrigation.
9. Increase your peace of mind!
Choosing products made with organic cotton gives you peace of mind by knowing that the items you wear or use are nontoxic to you and the environment, and don’t contribute to human rights violations.
You can also feel good about using your purchasing power to make a difference. By supporting the organic cotton industry, you can influence other brands and manufacturers to consider switching to a more regenerative supply chain.
Organic Consumers Association is a nonprofit grassroots consumer advocacy organization. To keep up to date with OCA’s news and alerts by sign up for our newsletter.