Maggie’s journey into the organic cotton business was inspired by the following statistics about conventional cotton. Maggie’s mission has been to raise awareness about the harmful impacts of cotton, but more importantly to lead the way to a more sustainable industry and product.
• Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop - it uses 16% of the world’s insecticides yet only covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated lands, more than any other single major crop (1).
• Bringing a new pesticide to market requires a major investment: nine years of development and $180 million plus the cost of manufacturing. The effectiveness of these agrochemicals is only temporary as pests develop immunities (2).
• Insecticides are designed to effect biological systems that are similar in both animals and people making them the most hazardous pesticides to human health, causing a wide range of acute and chronic conditions, increased risk of cancer, and death (1).
• Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production. All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are classified as moderately to highly hazardous (1).
• Aldicarb, cotton’s second best selling insecticide, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater (1).
• In recent years, insecticide use has decreased significantly in areas that have turned to the use of Biotech cotton seeds. However, with biotech cotton the insecticide is always present in the plant rather than applied in periodic spraying sessions which will lead to increased rate of pest immunities and possibly produce super pests (3).
• Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals to control pests, except in extreme cases. Instead, natural predators and intercropping are used to control pests and special machinery and fire control handle weeds (1).
• It can take almost a 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow one pound of raw cotton in the US, and it takes just under one pound of raw cotton to make one t-shirt (4).
• Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are considered the most detrimental to the environment, causing leaching and runoff that freshwater habitats and wells (5).
• Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are a major contributor to increased N2O emissions, which are 300 times more potent than CO2 as greenhouse gas (5), which is ominous for global warming as synthetic fertilizer use is forecasted to increase roughly 2.5 times by mid-century (6).
• Organic farming methods use natural fertilizers, like compost and animal manure, that recycles the nitrogen already in the soil rather than adding more, which reduces both pollution and N2O emissions (5).
• The cottonseed hull, where many pesticide residues have been detected, is a secondary crop sold as afood commodity. It is estimated that as much as 65% of cotton production ends up in our food chain, whether directly through food oil or indirectly through the milk and meat of animals (1).
• Cottonseed and field trash is usually sold for animal feed. Studies in Brazil and Nicaragua have showtraces of common cotton pesticides in cow milk, fueling concerns about chemical residues on the cottonseed (1).
• Cottonseed oil accounts for 8% of the world’s edible vegetable oil (1).
• Organic meat can only be fed by organic feed, and organic feed can not use any pesticides, including cottonseed. Likewise, organic food can only use ingredients that are pesticide-free.
• The developing world is home to 99% of all cotton farmers and produces 75% of the world’s cotton, so it bears the brunt of cotton’s environmental and health concerns (1).
• Rural farmers lack the necessary safety equipment, protective clothing, and training for handling hazardous pesticides. In India, one in ten pesticide applications results in three or more reported symptoms related to pesticide exposure (1).
• Surveys show that rural cotton farmers often store pesticides in their bedrooms or in close proximity to their food and some even reuse pesticide containers for drinking water. These farmers and their families are at highest risk for acute pesticide poisoning as well as chronic effects (1).
• The production of pesticides in the developing world is also of concern. In 1982, the worst man-made disaster occurred in Bhopal, India when a substandard pesticide plant exploded, killing 20,000 people and injuring 120,000 (1).
• US cotton subsidies artificially lower cotton prices while production costs for Biotech (Bt) seeds and pesticides are rising, causing financial stress in the rest of the world’s cotton-producing areas. India’s once prestigious cotton belt is now referred to as the “suicide belt” due to farmers unable to accept growing debts. Since 2003, the suicide rate has averaged one every eight hours in Vidarba, India (7).
• Organic farming poses no health threat from the use or production of agrochemicals and many farmers profit from organic premiums.
During the conversion of cotton into clothing, many hazardous materials are used and added to the product, including silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde—just to name a few (8).
• Many processing stages result in large amounts of toxic wastewater that carry away residues from chemical cleaning, dyeing, and finishing. This waste depletes the oxygen out of the water, killing aquatic animals and interfering with aquatic ecosystems (8).
• The North American Organic Fiber Processing Standards prohibits these and similar chemicals. These standards are optional for organic apparel manufacturers to recognize, yet Maggie's produces every product according to these standards.
(1) EJF. (2007). The deadly chemicals in cotton. Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK: London, UK. ISBN No. 1-904523-10-2.
(2) Whitford, F., Pike, D., Burroughs, F., Hanger, G. Johnson, B., & Brassard, D. (2006). The pesticide marketplace: Discovering and developing new products. Purdue University Extension, report # PPP-71.
(3) Chaudhry, M.R., (2007, March 6-8). Biotech applications in cotton: Concerns and challenges. Paper presented at the Regional Consultation on Biotech Cotton for Risk Assessment and Opportunities for Small Scale Cotton Growers (CFC/ICAC 34FT), Faisalabad, Pakistan.
(4) Lauresn, S. E., Hansen, J., Knudsen, H. H., Wenzel, H., Larsen, H. F., & Kristensen, F. M. (2007). EDIPTEX: Environmental assessment of textiles. Danish Environmental Protection Agency, working report 24.
(5) Kramer, S. B., Reganold, J. P., Glover, J. D., Bohannan, B. J. M., & Mooney, H. A. (2006). Reduced nitrate leaching and enhanced denitrifier activity and efficiency in organically fertilized soils. PNAS, 103 (12), 4522-4527.
(6) Tilman et al., 2001. Cassman, K., Matson, P., Naylor R.& Polasky, S. (2002). Nature (418), 71–677.
(7) Sam Lazaro, Fred de (Director). (2007). The dying fields: India’s forgotten farmers [Television series episode]. In WNET (producer), Wide Angle. New York: Public Broadcasting Station.
(8) Kadolph, S. J., & Langford, A. L. (2002). Textiles (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.