I hope you took the time to read part 1 of this series about organic food, explaining what the difference is and that you’ve hopefully decided to reduce your exposure to pesticides by using the list of the most contaminated foods. I’ve come to realize that although the word “organic” is gaining in popularity, the vast majority of people aren’t sure of what it means exactly. I’d like to help and show you what it is, as best as I can, because “organic” has an impact over everything, not just the fresh vegetables and fruits we put in our mouth (although buying organic produce should be your first step!).
“Conventional” crops (using synthetic pesticides, fertilizer, etc.) is more than just spraying toxic pesticides over some lettuce. It affects all of the cheap food, junk food and processed food too. Crops like soya and corn, the two most popular crops in North America, are subsidized (partly paid for) by governments, so this really promotes an environment of fast and cheap food that will make money. Those cheap foods are produced with pesticides and various other synthetic chemicals. Soya and corn are in turn used literally everywhere. Think of all those frozen pizzas, cereal, cookies, microwave meals, and various snacks and convenience foods. But on top of food that goes directly into our bodies, what else does it affect?
Pesticides (including insecticides, fungicides, and other “-cides”) and synthetic fertilizers are also used for other productions, like the type of corn that will be transformed into ethanol gas, or into construction materials like drywall and glue. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are also used on the grains used to feed animals everywhere, whether it be cattle, chicken or pets. Since we always say “you are what you eat”, that applies to everything else, since animals are fed a diet containing food that was made using chemicals (on top of being fed various hormones and antibiotics – that will be for another post), that goes into the meat as well, and in turn is eaten by humans, increasing our ingestion of pesticides and various chemicals even more.
What else do pesticides touch? Did you know that 25% of all insecticides worldwide are used on cotton? That cotton, what we consider a natural fibre, will make sheets, towels, mattresses, personal products, clothes, socks and underwear, etc. It’s also used in coffee filters, gunpowder and bookbinding. Cottonseed is also used to make oil, which is called ‘vegetable oil’ and is used in many foods, it also has uses in medical and cosmetic products (which go on our skin – our biggest organ).
Those chemicals also go into the environment and water (that will be examined in Part 3). Genetically modified (GM) seeds will also be explained in another part of the series.
Stay tuned to the end for resources.
Some facts about cotton cultivation and production
Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop (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 and most acutely poisonous to humans, 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).
Insecticide use has decreased in the last 10 years with the introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) Biotechnology (BT), the fastest adapted yet most controversial new technology in the history of agriculture. As of 2007, GM Bt cotton already commands 34% of total cotton cropland and 45% of world cotton production. In GM Bt cotton, the insecticide is always present in the plant rather than applied in periodic spraying sessions which will lead to rapid rates of pest immunities and possibly produce superpests (3).
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).
The cottonseed hull, where many pesticide residues have been detected, is a secondary crop sold as a food 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 show traces of common cotton pesticides in cow milk, fueling concerns about chemical residues on the cottonseed (1).
The developing world is home to 99% of all cotton farmers and produces 75% of the world’s total 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 health 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)
US cotton subsidies artificially lower cotton prices while production costs for GM Biotech (Bt) seeds (made by Monsanto – controlling 85% of India’s cotton) 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).
During the conversion of cotton into conventional 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 disrupting aquatic ecosystems (8).
Cotton uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.). (Allan Woodburn)
Fifty-five million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on the 12.8 million acres of conventional cotton grown in the U.S. in 2003 (4.3 pounds/ acre), ranking cotton third behind corn and soybeans in total amount of pesticides sprayed. (USDA)
Over 2.03 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers were applied to conventional cotton in 2000 (142 pounds/acre), making cotton the fourth most heavily fertilized crop behind corn, winter wheat, and soybeans. (USDA)
The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin). (EPA)
Watch this short documentary trailer about cotton crops in India, called Dirty White Gold, as they describe it: “A film on Indian cotton farmer suicides, pesticides & fashion. When you bag a bargain, who pays for it?”
What to do?
After reading all these facts, what are we to do? Luckily for all of us, some courageous farmers and designers have started producing and using organic cotton in everyday items, which are available to us commercially, sometimes you just have to look for them! Even large chains sometimes offer organic sheets and towels.
After reading about all this many years ago, I decided to gradually switch all my household items like sheets, towels, pillows and comforters. I bought some organic cotton towels at Loblaws many years ago, some organic sheets and towels at The Bay, from the House & Home Eco Collection, and some organic cotton bedding from West Elm. Even stores like HomeSense, Target and Pottery Barn have some organic items. You need to keep your eyes open and put just a bit more effort into making an informed decision. A simple buy can mean a lot. I also buy some organic clothes, socks and underwear when I have the chance. Unfortunately most of my clothes are not organic, but I try to support that industry whenever possible. You should look into it as well next time you’re shopping for a household item or clothes (including baby clothes!), keep your eyes open! It’s good for you (remember that you wear clothes all day long, right against your skin), those farmers and the environment.
And I know some will say that the organic items are probably more expensive than what they are used to pay for, but think of the impact it has on your health and the environment, as well as your kids and future generations. Also shop around and look for items on special, you’d be surprised to see that most of the time, the prices are comparable to other quality products. Oh, and one more bit of advice: spend wisely on quality items instead of looking for the cheapest item available! These high quality items will last you much, much longer than the cheap ones. Buy higher quality but buy less. In the end, it’ll be cheaper on your wallet and better for the environment and everyone. It’s a win-win. I personally prefer to spend $90 on a quality piece of clothing that I will use for the next 10 years rather than buying a cheap one for $20 that will barely last a year.
Some good resources for organic household items:
- http://www.organiclifestyle.com/ (various bedding items, some clothes)
- http://www.rawganique.com/ (various items for the home and some basics)
- http://www.notjustpretty.com/about.php (Canadian designers for clothes)
- https://www.annasova.com/ (American designer, sheets, towels and all-natural paint) (That’s where my sheets and some towels come from and I love them! had them for many years and still look new)
- http://www.innocentearth.ca/ (women’s clothes, baby and kids’ clothes, natural products)
- http://www.saltsorganic.com/ (designer clothes)
- http://www.liveco.ca/ (little bit of everything)
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, D., Cassman, K., Matson, P., Naylor, R., & Polasky, S. (2002). Nature (418), 71-677.
(7) de Sam Lazaro, F. (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.
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I had NO IDEA about cotton. Wow. I have becoming a cotton snob, it’s one of the 3 fabrics I am trying to convert my closet to (no rayon or polyester. I’ll definitely be keeping a lookout for organic cotton from now on. Thanks for the info!