Organic cotton. Why it matters and how to grow it.
In a world driven by demand, there’s always been a focus on producing more, cheaply. Cotton has been the frontrunner as a fabric fiber, for its plethora of uses. Inadvertently over the last century, cotton agriculture has industrialized to become the one crop that uses the most pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and defoliants (between ten and fifteen percent of all agricultural chemical usage). And cotton plants too have been genetically modified, to become resistant to specific diseases and resistant to certain pests. The compounding environmental effects and ecological impacts are ongoing debates.
Unlike conventional industrial agriculture, organic farming while being environmentally friendly, tends to produce lower volumes of produce. This makes organically produced crops like organic cotton, more expensive, more labor intensive and more prone to crop failure. The big positive though, is a healthier planet.
Organic when used in the perspective of agriculture or farming, indicates ‘natural’ techniques. Production of a product or an item is organic when they are produced using natural process (usually mimicking nature). These methods usually do not involve any kind of chemicals or pesticides in the growing process, and often use effective alternates (like compost, mulch and manure) produced using natural methods. Permaculture methods utilize natural systems and interactions to build soil health and pest control. Organic products are all eco-friendly. They qualify by:
- Mitigating long term harmful outcomes
- Avoiding environmental pollution
- Adding value to ecosystems
- Saving energy consumption
- Reducing water usage
- Creating healthy soil
Organic cotton, as you might surmise, is grown from natural (non-genetically modified) plant seeds, and without the use of any agricultural chemicals like fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or defoliants. To be considered organic, plantations usually need to be certified to be using organic or natural practices of agriculture, pest management, soil enhancement, and even handling and storage of the crop. In the US, the National Organic Program provides guidelines and oversight for organic cotton plantations.
By 2019, there was an over 30% increase in global cotton fiber production, from the previous year with active programs in nineteen countries. The demand for organic cotton has been a motivator for farmers across regions, with producing over 50% of all organic cotton.
Why organic cotton?
Global climate action, sustainable development goals, consumer awareness and shifting agricultural patterns are direct contributors to growth in organic cotton agriculture. From an individual’s perspective, organic cotton provides an avenue of participation towards mitigating each person’s overall impact on the world. With garments, textile based and single use products being a major portion of environment impact consumables, it makes sense for people to begin exploring organic cotton as lifestyle choice. Besides, organic cotton is healthy, comfortable and trendy.
Organic cotton is widely considered for the manufacturing of clothing and durable fabric products. Cloth and thread can be produced in a range of thickness, suiting a variety of consumer preferences, production specifications, and distribution needs. Organic cotton is a draw for garment and fabric manufacturers because of the material’s versatility, comfort, durability, purity and low environmental impact. Many manufacturers are even moving towards making unbleached and uncolored natural shade products (find products with these options here).
Cotton has a unique fiber structure that allows it to absorb water up to 3 times more than its actual weight. Absorption is a worthy quality of cotton and cotton clothing soaks moisture from the skin. Being a very soft and light weighted fiber, it is easy to handle and this is what makes it preferable to most other natural fiber cloth.
While cotton is expensive in comparison to many other natural fibers, it is a mainstay crop for numerous farmers in countries where cotton grows easily. Unfortunately, economic pressures have encouraged harmful agricultural practices (e.g.: high use of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides). Over recent years though, there has been a slight shift towards organic cotton, driven primarily by consumer demand.Medical use
Due to its high absorption properties, cotton, and woven cotton medical products like gauze, are still preferred for a number of medical applications including cleaning wounds, absorbing blood and fluids and surgical dressing. Cotton medical products are widely used in most hospitals, dispensaries, nursing homes and care centers. Naturally produced medical use cotton and cotton products usually may not require extensive treatment to remove harmful chemicals, absorbed during the growing process.
How is organic cotton produced?
Cotton requires a warm climate, an extended frost-free growing period with ample sunshine and moderate humidity. A cotton crop normally does well with temperatures between ~70° to 88°F (~21°C to 31°C) and requires moderate rainfall between ~20 to 30 in (50 to 75 cm).Growing cotton
Planting cotton seeds into soil, is the obvious first step to start producing cotton. Obviously, to grow organic cotton, no chemical or synthetic fertilizers or soil amendments should be applied, to start off with a pure and natural process. There are a few things you’ll need to consider:
- Selecting and procuring high quality organic, non-GMO (preferably heirloom) cotton seeds
- Composting the soil in advance and adequately mulching the soil surface
- A period of absorption to allow nutrients from the compost to leach into the soil
- Sowing as temperatures cross into the lower growing bracket with an expected extended warm period
- Watering the crop regularly while having a planned for a growth period through a rainy season (alternative sources of water availability is essential - ideally water harvesting tanks or ponds)
- Observing the crop on a regular basis and treating with organic pesticides and natural pest control measures
Once seeds germinate and grow into adult plants, flower and then form cotton bolls, the bolls are ready to be collected about 180 days after sowing. Bolls can be noticed about 25 days after cotton flower petals have fallen, and usually fully mature within 35 to 55 days, depending on climate conditions and cotton variety. The organically grown cotton bolls can be plucked by hand and stored in sacks or other air circulating containers.
Ginning organic cotton
Collected cotton is usually incredibly soft but is also quite dirty (still retaining round-shaped ball-like structures). It requires processing before being turned into fiber. After cotton bolls are plucked from cotton plants, the collected crop is stored until plucking is completed, after which the bolls are transferred in bulk to ginning factories. The cotton which is grown from the seedpod is separated after processing them through a ginning machine. The machine helps remove dirt, leaves and linters. These are often stuck in the cotton and requires to be removed through the ginning process to make the cotton usable.
Spinning organic cotton
After the ginning process, once clean fiber is obtained, yarn need to be produced from the fiber. This process is known as spinning. The ginned cotton fibers are twisted to form yarn. The yarn is then placed on a spinning frame and passed to sets of rollers. The spun organic cotton yarn is collected in this manner and is then usable to further produce various products including garments. The spinning process provides cotton in a usable form and is often sold as an input product for organic cotton product manufacturing.
Looking forward - Organic cotton
Growing cotton organically, holds the possibility of massive savings in terms of agricultural water usage. Organic agricultural methods can also dramatically reduce the seepage of chemical runoff, since chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides would not even be considered. Also, the use of organic and heirloom seeds would allow natural selection to advance cotton varieties.