Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton
Updated: Mar 11
Cotton is one of the largest crops in the world. We all know cotton. Almost all of our clothing is made with it, but unfortunately cotton has a poor reputation as a crop. For this reason, consumers are more likely to want clothing made from cotton that does not contain harmful pesticides. This type of cotton is organic cotton (there are more requirements to be certified as organic) but is regular produced cotton really bad? Let's take a closer look at this.
Cotton is known as one of the crops that needs a lot of pesticides to have an optimal harvest. Cotton is one of the most intensive sprayed crops in the world. For example, in the US 38 million kg of pesticides were used on 58,000 square kilometers in 2000. Synthetic fertilizers were also used in abundance. So, the cotton crops in the US receive an abundance of chemicals.
Now the legislation for the use of pesticides around the world is not the same everywhere and the US is the country where the most pesticides are allowed. Of all the pesticides used in the US, only 25% of these pesticides are also approved in the EU (and China, although China allows slightly more than the EU). Although the amount of cotton produced in the EU is a lot lower than in the US, it makes a lot of difference where the cotton is produced to determine how much pesticide is used on the crop.
Here too, the differences between the EU and the US are significant. For example, the outdoor production of genetically modified crops is prohibited in the EU, while it is allowed in the US. The so-called Bt cotton is often used in the US. This ensures that the crop is more resistant to some insect species to prevent loss of harvest due to these insects. On average, the crop loss for cotton is between 19 and 61% if insect suppressants are not used
Besides that cotton is known for its high pesticide demand, it also has a great demand for water. This is due to cotton having no specific demands for the production area. This means that it can grow in many places, even in places that do not get much rainfall. However, this crop (like every other crop) does need water to grow, so this is artificially added through irrigation.
The large use of pesticides and water has a major impact on the soil where the crop is produced. Soil salinization is a problem due to the high use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Some of these substances will remain in the soil even after rainfall or irrigation. This deteriorates soil quality and ensures that the biodiversity in the soil is reduced.
Erosion is also a major problem around cotton crops. As cotton is heavily irrigated, this causes the water to flush out the previously applied fertilizers and pesticides but also the minerals that are naturally present in the soil. This will result in soil that lacks all nutrients and in the end, nothing will be able to grow there.
Because we as consumers want our clothing to be as cheap as possible, everything has to be produced quickly and cheaply. This results in workers who are not protected from the great number of pesticides they have to apply to the crop, they have to work long hours and they receive poor wages.
Pesticides and fertilizers may be used in organic cultivation. However, these are strictly regulated and must meet strict environmental requirements. An organic farmer may even use synthetic pesticides, but this will only happen after a consultation if the farmer can show that organically certified pesticides have failed and synthetic pesticides are needed to save his crop.
Genetically modified cotton is not allowed in organic farming.
Organic cotton is often said to require less water. This is not necessarily true. Organic cotton is usually grown in an area with a lot of rainfall. If a crop naturally receives more water, irrigation of the crop will of course be less. Organic cotton is indeed less irrigated than regular cotton, but this is due to the area where the plant is grown (with high rainfall), not due to a difference in the demand for water between organic and regular cotton.
In regular crop production, the same crop can be used every year, this is not allowed for organic cultivation. Organic cultivation requires a different crop to be grown every year. Before the same crop can be grown again, the farmer has to wait a year (or grow another crop). This has great benefits for the soil. Soil with organic crops is less affected by erosion, salinization and has higher biodiversity compared to the soil of regular grown crops.
This is where organic farming differs greatly from regular farming. This is because this is strictly regulated. For example, all employees must be treated fairly and working must be the employee's choice. Child labor is not allowed and the workplace must be clean and safe. Also, the salary of the employee must meet the national standard of that country.
Generally speaking, organic cotton is better for both the environment and the employees. Although there is a big difference in pesticide use in different places in the world, the largest cotton producers (the US) are also the ones that use the most pesticides and it is difficult to determine where the cotton in your garments comes from.