Agriculture and Environment: Cotton | WWF

Agriculture and Environment: Cotton

Better Management Practices: Encourage Organic Production

Organic methods produce cotton without the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.

Instead they depend on natural processes to increase yields and disease resistance, partly through enhancing soil quality. Organic production is also the only internationally recognised, independently assessed certification or label for cotton production (Banuri 1999).
By 1993 organic production was estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000 metric tons, or less than .04% of total global output for cotton. Some 75% of all production was in the United States.

Pros & cons of organic standards

Many, but not all, of the main environmental problems from cotton production could be addressed by switching to organic production. Organic standards for cotton have already been established and are available for review. However, organic standards do not set limits on the water that can be used to grow the crop, and this is the main problem with current cotton production.

The water issue must be addressed to make organic cotton sustainable. In addition, while synthetic chemicals are not allowed in organic production, naturally occurring ones are. What this means is that a number of pesticides that include copper are allowed, even though they are toxic to soil organisms and other nontarget species.

Possible decline in product volumes

There is also some evidence that organic cotton might not produce the volume of product that is desired for a wide range of reasons. In the United States, for example, interest in organic and naturally coloured cotton in the late 1980s and early 1990s stimulated the establishment of whole new companies, product lines, and the on-farm certification of several producers.

In the end, after several years of stable or in some cases increasing production levels, production began to decline (even with crop rotation) and prices increased dramatically. At this time it is not clear why these declines occurred or what it would take to correct them.

Segregating organic cotton production

In the United States keeping organic cotton production segregated was not a major problem at the farm level or even when the cotton was sold. However, keeping the cotton segregated throughout the different processing activities from ginning to spinning and weaving operations proved to be very difficult and expensive.

All non-organic cotton had to be cleaned out of the operations. Because of the huge scale required to make these operations competitive within a global economy, it would be very costly and time-consuming to clean them out between runs of cotton that need to be segregated.

There simply was not sufficient organic cotton to keep separate processing facilities in operation. As a consequence, the cost of spinning and weaving organic cotton was much more expensive than conventional cotton, and most manufactures wanted nothing to do with it.

Encouraging organic cotton production & sales

Even though organic cotton sales have declined, it appears that there is still consumer interest in the product. Such production can be encouraged through the purchasing policies of manufactures and retailers that wish to be proactive; they can decide to give preference to organic cotton, and pay a premium for it, or only purchase organic products.

Raw cotton is a tiny percentage of the cost of cotton textiles. Costs could be kept down by targeting producers in less developed countries where labour can be substituted for chemicals. Smaller spinning and weaving operations could be dedicated to organic cotton as production grows. Cutting-edge companies with high mark-ups might be willing to work on this approach, but it is doubtful.

It is much more likely that interest in organic cotton will only grow considerably if a really large company decides to make a commitment to organic cotton that would be stimulate the market accordingly.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Donate to WWF

Your support will help us build a future where humans live in harmony with nature.

Enter Yes if you accept the terms and conditions
Enter Yes if you accept the terms and conditions