Cotton and Pesticides

Pick Your Cotton

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Feb 01, 2006
Cotton production pumps thousands of tons of pesticides into the environment each year, but there are ways to help reduce the problem without swearing off T-shirts

LIKE MANY of her neighbors in coastal North Carolina, Amy Midyette comes down with “cotton flu” in the autumn. Her symptoms—asthma attacks, headaches, tremors and fatigue—last from two days to a week. And they reoccur every time farmers send up crop dusters to spray the fields near her home.

The chemicals that bother Midyette and other residents of cotton-growing areas from the Carolinas to California are defoliants, used to kill the leaves on cotton plants before the mechanical pickers go in to harvest. It isn’t uncommon for the mist of these powerful neurotoxins to drift into neighborhoods. “They even spray the fields right across the street from the elementary school,” says Midyette.

Most people think of cotton as a “natural” product. The reality: Cotton is one of the most chemically intensive crops in the world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 84 million pounds of pesticides were applied to the nation’s 14.4 million acres of cotton in the year 2000, and more than two billion pounds of fertilizers were spread on those same fields. Seven of the 15 pesticides commonly used on cotton in the United States are listed as “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency. And cotton defoliants are “the most toxic farm chemicals currently on the market,” says Fawn Pattison, executive director of the Agricultural Resources Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the use of harmful pesticides.

For consumers who are willing to pay a little more for their T-shirts and jeans, however, there is a better way. Organic cotton, grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or defoliants, is becoming more widely available. “Organic cotton is just as good as conventional cotton,” says Lynda Grose, a fashion designer who cofounded Espirit’s Ecollection division and currently works as a marketing consultant for the Sustainable Cotton Project’s Cleaner Cotton Campaign. “The only difference is the chemicals.”

Right now, organic cotton represents less than 0.1 percent of all the cotton produced worldwide. But the market is slowly growing. Turkey is the biggest producer; in the United States, the state of Texas leads the way. Part of Grose’s strategy is to convince companies to blend a small amount of organic cotton into many of their products. “There’s hardly any increase in the cost,” she says. A number of companies, including Patagonia, Nike and Timberland, are now selling clothes made with organic fibers. The National Wildlife Federation is also launching a line of 100 percent organic cotton apparel.

Buying organic cotton has a number of benefits, including helping to keep pesticides out of our food supply. Few people realize it, but only 35 percent of the cotton harvest is turned into cloth. The seed, which is crushed and separated into oil, meal and hulls, comprises nearly 60 percent. Cottonseed oil shows up in cookies, potato chips, marinades, salad dressings and many other processed foods. Cotton meal is given to both dairy and beef cattle as a high-protein feed supplement. The remaining 5 percent of the crop is “gin trash,” the leaves, stems and other residue left over when processing is finished. Sometimes fed to livestock, it can harbor high levels of pesticide residues.

Organically grown cotton is also better for the environment. Even properly applied pesticides can be dangerous to wildlife. Biologists estimate millions of birds die every year in the United States from the effects of agricultural chemicals sprayed on cotton and other crops. When runoff from a field contains high levels of pesticides, it can kill fish in nearby rivers and streams. In one well-documented 1995 case in Alabama, at least 240,000 fish were killed by runoff—even though local officials determined afterward that the pesticides had been applied legally.

Organic growers try to work in harmony with the natural world. “We try to be good stewards of the resources,” says Terry Pepper, who, along with his wife LeRhea, grows 750 acres of organic cotton on the high plains of Texas. Because of the area’s cold winters, insect pests are not much of a problem for them. They don’t use synthetic fertilizers, Pepper says, but instead grow corn as a cover crop. “It makes a good fertilizer,” he explains, and gives beneficial insects—those that prey on cotton pests—a place to hide. To prepare their crop for harvest, the Peppers don’t spray with defoliants. They simply wait for a frost to kill the plants.

If more farmers stopped using defoliants, it would be good for Midyette and others like her who are sensitive to those chemicals. “I have fields all around my house,” says Midyette. Yet she is reluctant to move because it would mean leaving her job and uprooting her 14-year-old daughter. “Sometimes I’m so sick, I have no choice but to go to bed. It just affects my whole life.”

South Carolina journalist Doreen Cubie wrote about CD and DVD recycling in the October/November issue.

Wearing Your Convictions on Your Sleeve
How many T-shirts do you buy every year? Chances are each one was made with conventional cotton. For every nine ounces of cotton—the amount in an average T-shirt—growers use an average of 17 teaspoons of chemical fertilizers and nearly a teaspoon of active ingredients, including pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and defoliants.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates