Monday, 19 July 2010

Organic Cotton - Farming

The differences between organic cotton and conventional can be seen when the farming process is broken down into stages, such as seed preparation, soil preparation, water, weed control, pest control, and harvesting. The basic premise of organic cotton at the farming level is facilitating what the earth does naturally –thrive.

Conventional cotton growing creates a dependent cycle of chemical use which hinders nature from doing its job, and therefore creates the need for more chemicals to compensate. For example, with conventional cotton, the pesticides and herbicides used to keep pests and weeds at bay takes all the good nutrients out of the soil in which the cotton is growing. The soil therefore needs more chemicals in the form of synthetic fertiliser in order to boost its nutrients again, for the cotton to grow.

The methods used with organic farming including crop rotation and hand hoeing mean that weeds and pests are kept at bay naturally, and the soil is nutrient rich with organic matter. A staggering statistic is that conventional cotton growing accounts for approximately 25% of the world’s insecticide use – that takes a fair chunk of responsibility for spraying all those chemicals into the air.



Seed preparation

Toxic fungicide or insecticide treatment, potential Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds.

Natural, untreated seeds free from GMO!

Soil Preparation

Synthetic fertilisers, soil erosion due to mono-crop culture.

Natural balance of soil helped by crop rotation means synthetic fertilisers not needed.

Weed Control

Toxic herbicides

Physical removal of weeds, no chemicals

Pest control

Toxic pesticides, insecticides, fungicides

Healthy soil maintains balance between pests and predators, trap crop planting


Toxic chemical defoliation

Natural defoliation methods such as seasonal freezing, water management


Poor quality soil from chemical use leads to polluted water run off

Healthy soil has water retention properties – and any run off is unpolluted

Seed preparation

With conventional cotton, seeds are treated with toxic fungicides or insecticides. Sometimes potentially Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds are used. Organic cotton seeds are natural, free from treatment and definitely not GMO!

Soil Preparation

Synthetic fertilisers are applied to the soil as its nutrients have been depleted due to pesticide use. Soil is also eroded from continuous cropping or mono-crop culture – always planting the same kind of crop, i.e. cotton, in the same place. This is designed to generate as high income as possible for the owner, with little regard for the soil, and is in contrast to organic cotton which is grown using crop rotation methods. This is the practice of alternating different crops on the same field to break weed, pest and disease cycles and to maintain or improve soil fertility, retention and organic matter content. Before pesticides were invented, this was the traditional method used by farmers to protect their crops.

Weed Control

Toxic herbicides are used to control weeds with conventional cotton crops. It is also applied to the soil to inhibit weed germination, and sprayed through the air. Organic cotton, on the other hand requires physical removal of the weeds rather than chemical, and weed control is exercised by hand hoeing and keeping the soil healthy.

Pest Control

Conventional cotton cultivation depends heavily on the use of pesticides to protect the plant against pests and disease, accounting for approximately 25% of world pesticide consumption. Pesticides and insecticides used are highly toxic, and the method of aerial spraying causes potential harm to workers, as well as neighbouring farms, animals and communities. Organic cotton on the other hand maintains a balance between pests and their natural predators through healthy soil, as well as using beneficial insects, biological and cultural practices to control pests. Sometimes a trap crop may be used to lure pests away from the cotton!


The cotton plant undergoes a process of defoliation, where the leaves are cleared, before it is mechanically harvested. Conventional cotton is defoliated using toxic chemicals, the effects on the environment similar in impact to pesticides. Organic cotton uses a natural method of defoliant such as seasonal freezing temperatures, as well as water management.

What about water?

Cotton growing both conventionally and organically uses a lot of water. The benefit of organic is the elimination of toxic chemicals, rather than the sustainability of low water use, as is seen with the bamboo crop. When it comes to irrigation, organic cotton crops are more water retentive than conventional cotton crops, as the soil is rich and healthy. So less water runs off the fields and what does in not polluted.


Kooistra, K.J., Pyburn, R., Termorshuizen, A.J. 2006. The sustainability of cotton. Consequences for man and environment, Science Shop Wageningen University & Research Centre. Report 223. ISBN: 90-6754-90-8585-000-2.


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