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Saving Natural Color--How An Organic Cotton Breeder Changed the World

>From the August 15th, 2004 (volume 15, number 4) issue of In Good Tilth...a
publicattion of Oregon Tilth.

Saving Natural Color
How a Curious Cotton Breeder Changed the World

by Angela Ajootian

The fibers of the cotton plant, genus Gossypium, have been harvested for
some 4,300 years. In June, the US Department of Agriculture placed current
harvest at a record setting 99.9 million bales. Foreign cotton harvest has
increased by 20 million bales while American cotton harvest sits at its
lowest point since 1984.

Commercial white cotton is markedly different from its venerable ancestors.
The original varieties came in a range of colors: mocha, tan, gray, brown,
black, mahogany, red, pink, blue, green, cream and white. The Central
Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur, India, has 6,000 internationally
cultivated cotton varieties, 40 of which are colored. Colored cotton has
become obscure because theoriginal short fiber length is unsuitable for
industrial milling. In pre-Revolutionary America, slaves grew colored
cotton for their own use. It emphasized segregation and effectively
prevented slaves from marketing their crops. India, the source of naturally
colored khaki fabric, only started growing white cotton during the past 100

"Improved" white cotton has not only dramatically altered the culture and
processing of cotton fiber. Millions of acres of mono-crop cotton, the most
pesticide heavy crop, have indelibly changed the nature and health of
farming communities. The vast quantity of material processed creates a
major point source of land, air and water pollution. The textile industry
is also the prime example of sweatshop outsourcing.

Dr. Glenn Stone is an anthropologist who studies the sociopolitics of
agricultural systems. In a May, 2002, Anthropology News article, he
examined suicide among cotton farmers in India, who drank pesticide in
reaction to the spectacular failure of Monsanto's genetically engineered
Bollgard cotton. He blamed "deskilling" societies encouraged by global
corporate dominance. Total reliance on modern pesticides and genetic
engineering is an example of Dr. Stone's "deskilling" theory. He points out
that "other crops being developed in India are more consistent with
agricultural sustainability," and acknowledges that these projects are
mostly in the public sector rather than generated by "the biotech
corporations that spend fortunes touting them."

While the majority of consumer technology seems geared toward nullifying
intellect for the sake of profit, there are examples of hard work and
intelligent determination creating something wholly simple and useful.

Sally Fox uses the rustic skill of hand spinning to guide her in the
development of an environmentally friendly technology. in response to the
many drawbacks of cotton cultivation, she improved traditional
pest-resistant self-colored cotton to accommodate the modern milling

Cotton requires an enormous amount of pesticide to keep it viable. Each
pound of product requires a third of a pound of pesticides, which adds up to
25 percent of all pesticides used in the US for 13 million acres of cotton.
Many cotton pesticides are EPA toxicity class I, like the viciously
effective insecticides Methomyl and Methyl Parathion. A study by the
California Department of Pesticide Regulation revealed that pesticide usage
per acre increased during the 1991 to 1995 period by 4.21 pounds to 14.15
pounds per acre. The reality in developing nations, where pesticide
regulation is more relaxed, is much worse.

Commercial white cotton is by far the most pesticide-dependent crop in the
world and a major global crop. Fifty-five countries rely upon cotton for a
significant percent of GDP. Cotton processing also takes another toxic
toll, as the use of chlorine bleaching agents, formaldehydes and phenols is
quite dangerous to all life. Fabric dyes utilizing arsenic, lead, cadmium,
cobalt, zinc, and chromium are also very problematic. All processing stages
produce large amounts of toxic wastewater. Azo dyes are cheap and common,
about 2,000 exist. Many are water based and possess highly carcinogenic
material absorbed by the skin and accumulated in the body. Inhalation,
aquatic exposure or simple skin contact can be harmful. The Eu has banned
import and usage of the more toxic versions containing arylamines., though
these products are used elsewhere. Other acid dyes produce waste streams
with pH values above 11 and with possible carcinogen content.

There are many examples of local communities devastated by pollution from
the bleaching and dying process. Fox tried to work with a family mill in
Mexico, established two generations ago, which had to close production
because the dying process had destroyed the local water supply. The effort
to resurrect the enterprise and the environment failed.

Sally Fox's interest in fiber began in 1968. She was 12 and learning hand
spinning. A few years later she developed an interest in entomology. She
joined the Peace Corps after college and found herself battling rice and
peanut pests in Africa. Fox's Peace Corps stint ended early when she got
sick from a donation of recently banned European pesticides.

After that, she worked with a cotton breeder in Davis, California, as a
pollinator for a pest-resistant breeding trial. She came across seeds that
grew natural brown cotton. The breeder wasn't interested, despite their
pest-resistant qualities, because they produced unusable short fiber. As a
hand-spinner, Fox was intrigued. She took seeds and grew them out, year
after year, with organic methods. Her experience with pesticides confirmed
her belief that an organic lifestyle is more healthy and sustainable. The
textile artist and the scientist understood the importance of naturally
colored pest-resistant cotton. Seven years of hand selecting for fiber
length and spinning quality produced two varieties protected by Plant
Variety Protection Certificates and a United Nations Environmental Program

Her timing was perfect. Major textile corporations were eager for organic
products and Fox was soon heading a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Life
was golden because she had enough to do all the cotton breeding she desired
and she was helping the environment. It's the halycon post-war period of
the 1990's, and things are looking good.

But soon there were accusation that Fox's cotton would contaminate the white
cotton crops grown in the same valley and processed in the same mills. The
well-established and firmly entrenched cotton society didn't take kindly to
this woman and her nuevo riche brown-colored industry. Mills began refusing
to process her product or charging her higher fees.

Eventually she withdrew from her business world. She now raises Merino
sheep acquired from a local organic farm and enjoys the change from an
international cotton business. "I've learned a lot in four years. I didn't
know the wool would break if you switched their food too quickly. I had
them in a walnut orchard, cover crop with legume. they ate it all down. So
they went from legume to no legume to grass...surprise, surprise, their wool
will break. So I now try to moderate."

Every day the sheep get one pound of organic spelt grown in her fields.
It's part of her total "organic way of life" philosophy, which amplifies
with each farm experience. She has used sheep as star thistle control on an
acre of pasture. The pesky plant has not returned to that field and her
flock, she reports, seems to have benefited from that experience. She
suspects it's because star thistle roots delve down quite far and bring the
deep earth minerals up to their water.

Fox is also evaluating the practice of coating sheep to protect their wool
from excessive vegetable matter. The temperature this time of year climbs
above 100 degrees, and she feels it's unhealthy to shroud the animals in
jackets. Her reasoning is simple: "You can't do that if it's organic, you
can't set them up to be ill. So I've been working hard to keep them weed

Fox believes in remaining calm. "Being calmer, it's part of the organic
life. I see this among the organic farmers in the valley. All of us tend
to get totally overburdened, worked into a frenzy," and the end result is we
can't slow down enough to really appreciate the wholeness of good living and
how to achieve it.

"I was in the corporate world: growing cotton, designing fabrics, selling
product. It's hard to switch gears and get into the calm." She credits
being a mother with helping her slow down and appreciate her day-to-day
life. "It's so nice that my daughter can help with a lot of my work. My
wools and cottons are so soft. But she can't help with the tractor.
Industrialization these ramifications. If I used a horse to till, sure she
could help. But industrialization separates people. It brings us this
whole alienated schizo world."

Many of her farming neighbors are some of the original organic pioneers who
started that 20 or 30 years ago. Organic practices were difficult to
initiate in California's industrial farming belt. Fox recalls that organic
farming "was thought impossible by all the powers that be, it was hard, and
these farmers are still running around, struggling, still in that hard work
mode, which I understand."

She still recoils from the mainstream ridicule the fledgling organic
community received. "Back in the day we were a little group, we all
believed we could do this without chemicals so they hated us. They wanted
to step on us like ants." She appreciates the current "massive explosion of
organic" and feels good knowing they were on to something all along. She
feels some resentment "because the big guys jumped in and took the market,"
but there is still a lot of proud of.

Queried about her most memorable moment, a veritable treasure trove of
images and recollections came forth. "I saw all the beautiful fabrics the
other day as I was cleaning with my daughter, opening box after box, and all
this beautiful fabric with different label and patterns."

Early on Fox had to successfully present her research findings to potential
investors. She reminisces on having "all the washing done so I can hand it
on to someone else and say, 'See the fabric gets darker,'" and indeed, her
FoxFibre brand cotton does increase its color intensity with repeated

A two-year study funded by the California Agricultural Technology Institute
and headed by California State University-Fresno professor Dianne Dickerson,
"found that all naturally colored cotton fabrics darken" with repeat

Sally is grateful for her experiences because "every year there was
incredible moments out in the fields with the plants or in the data." When
she first started out she didn't have the resources to get her cotton
professionally tested, so she sent samples out to hand spinning guilds for
critique. It was more in line with her goals as she "didn't want a
commercial crop; just a few acres to grow for hand spinners." She worked
with spinners from Berkeley and Michigan and met with great results.

She laughs, "Every year there are great moments. I believe as you spend
more and more time with the plants, you get some sensitivity to this. I've
tried to be more aware and open to what feelings I get from my plants. It's
like an accumulation of realizations." Her favorite memories are
undoubtedly in the field. "It's so interesting that there will be a plant
that has one feeling and the variety develops from it will share it. I had
500k plants when I was breeding. It would take two-and-a-half months to get
through every plant. The choice of selecting a plant is a big deal. We
don't just need organic plants. We need people to be breeding for organic

The highlight of her fieldwork happened in the F2 generation. She was
evaluating over 1,000 progeny and was about to choose this "magnificent,
golden blonde, long-limbed plant, four feet tall, loaded with cotton" but
then underneath it was this scrawny little bright green cotton plant with
only tow little bolls. Out of thousands of plants not one was alike, and
here was the first green cotton she had ever seen. She remembers it as very
bright green. "In fact there is green cotton, in the seed banks, but I
hadn't known then. I just started crying right there in the field... What
do you do when you haven't seen a color before?"

Over the last few years she has not been growing cotton. The business and
her daughter take up her time now. She considers the crash of her major
organic enterprise "a casualty of globalization. The American textile
industry was devastated in the early '90s; it's almost gone now."

She was struck by the rapidity of the domestic closures. "We'd tell a
farmer to harvest the cotton, and then the mill wouldn't be there. The
farmers would think 'Hey, we'll grow it, someone will buy it.' But no one
was there." She still has some quantity stock of her 1996 harvest in

What profits she was able to retain funded her breeding program. She
remains keen on breeding for interesting cotton and longer fibers. The
textiles artist in her is thrilled that as many as three colors can be on
one fiber. Her breeding program feeds her fascination for "how much beauty
and variation is possible. How to get the color from seed to fabric is
awesome. All the design in fabric is reflection of of what I see in the
field. I only wanted to get enough money to fund my breeding work."

She has harvested her last crop when she was pregnant almost four years ago.
Fox's life has been blessedly full. She made good money growing cotton and
gave the world a precious item. For now, she works on her calm, enjoys
life, and takes well-deserved siestas. Sally reflects: "My sheep are in the
orchard, all the land I had in cotton is in grain or in fallow," but a warm
and sunny spirit still shines from this remarkable hand spinner who changed
the world.