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Is Cotton Safe for the Environment?

written by: •edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 6/30/2009

The cotton industry has spent considerable energy advertising cotton as an important aspect of daily life, but is it safe for the environment? Is cotton really better than man-made materials? Judging by the amount of pesticides used to grow cotton, it may be time to consider other options.

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    Cotton is a natural fiber harvested from the cotton plant, and it is one of the oldest cultivated plants. The earliest reference to cotton dates to 1500 B.C. in South Asia in the Rig Veda, but cotton was thought to be used long before this time, according to Archeological evidence suggests cotton textiles existed in the Indus Valley from 3000 B.C. Today cotton is the most important textile fabric, making up 40 percent of fiber production worldwide, according to the Economic Research Service at the United States Department of Agriculture, (USDA). About 80 countries produce cotton, including the United States, China, India, Africa and Uzbekistan. In the U.S. cotton is the staple in 14 of the 17 states that grow the crop.

    Cotton is huge! From American Pima to Egyptian to Asiatic and Upland, consumers buy cotton apparel, bedding and home furnishing fabrics. The cotton industry is so large that people don’t even know when they are using cotton. It’s used in surgical supplies, even currency. Yes, U.S. currency is a blend of cotton lint and linen. So what is the problem with cotton? The amount of pesticides used to grow cotton is high. In 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture said cotton was one of the most heavily fertilized crops, receiving over 2 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizer. According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides are applied to cotton. The OTA says the Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the most common pesticides used to grow cotton in the United States as "possible," "likely," "probable" or "known" human carcinogens, or cancer causing agents.

    Organic cotton may be the answer. Intended to have a low impact on the environment, organic cotton is grown without synthetic fertilizers or persistent pesticides-the pest killing chemicals that do not breakdown in the soil. The OTA says that cotton must meet federal regulations before it can be sold as organic. Third-party organizations must certify that organic producers only use acceptable methods and materials for organic production. As consumers become increasingly more aware about the amount of pesticides used to grow cotton by conventionally methods, the demand for organic cotton continues to rise. In 1996, the Sustainable Cotton Project worked to bring growers, manufacturers and consumers together to reduce pesticides in production and develop strategies to incorporate organic cotton into products. Today, a number of retailers carry organic cotton, even the big box stores. Now that you know more about the pesticides used to grow cotton and the benefits of organic cotton, you can make more informed decisions about future purchases.