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Economic Sense

RSS By: Matt Bogard,

Matt's primary interest is in the biotech industry and ag policy.

Time to Change the (sustainable cotton) Sheets

Oct 29, 2009

By Matt Bogard

A recent AgWeb blog reader commented that they were watching the "Green Channel" on one of the satellite dish providers, and made the following observation:

"One program had a woman trying to 'help' an expectant couple on the purchase of the nursery items. She told them that cotton was the most pesticide used crop in the world...... and that crib sheets and blankets should not be of cotton but of organic material"

Not long ago, I watched an infomercial featuring Wal-Mart and then found the following on their website:

“So, we expanded our organic practice to include select bath, bed and baby products. From just these few orders in a limited number of stores, the Organic Exchange has informed us we will have saved 50,000 – 60,000 lbs of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals from being used, and have become the largest single purchaser of 100% organic cotton products in the world.”

I cannot locate the page for the above quote anymore,  but I  found  the following reference to an article in Feedstuffs that verified that the 50,000 claim was posted on the Wal-Mart website, and was actually a revised figure down from 500,000 lbs of chemical reduction. 

And the following from Wal-Mart here:
“To grow a pound of cotton takes on average .1188 ounces of synthetic chemicals. So our purchase of 12 million pounds of transitional cotton will save over 89,000 pounds (over 40 tons) of synthetic chemicals from going into the earth.”

Well that’s great, but do consumers realize how many pounds of insecticide are saved every year from non-organic biotech Bt cotton?  

1.8 million fewer pounds of insecticide are applied each year as a result of biotech Bt cotton alone. According to research from USDA ERS from 1997-1998 glyphosate resistant technology in soybeans allowed for glyphosate herbicide to substitute for 7.2 million pounds of other chemicals that are more toxic and persistent in the environment (Note this was in the early stages of biotech prior to the widespread adoption that we see today so these numbers are likely much higher today).

I don’t have the data on hand for glyphosate resistant cotton, but the reduction in pesticides from Bt cotton alone dwarfs the reduction from organic mentioned above. We are comparing reductions of tens of thousands of pounds  with organic vs. hundreds of thousands and millions of pounds due to biotech. My numbers reflect active ingredient of pesticides, the Wal-Mart statements use a more ambiguous term ‘synthetic chemicals’- I’m not sure if they are talking active ingredient, or they may even be including packaging, fertilizer and fuel costs. That would imply even less actual pesticide reductions than even the 50,000-89,000 pounds.

In addition to Wal-Mart’s actions, we’ve also seen Kroger and Starbucks eliminate the use of milk produced from cows treated with biotech rBST. This is despite the research indicating its safety and environmental benefits. ( See got Green Milk).

The point to all of this is not to blast big retailers. They are part of the reason that agriculture employs 25% of the U.S. workforce.  If consumers desire local, organic or other food alternatives, that’s fine. The market should meet those needs- that’s what they are for. The problem starts when the media,  schools, and the Michael Pollan’s of the world attempt to proselytize us all to believe that modern agriculture is destroying the environment- when there is so much evidence to the contrary.

As big retailers join the band wagon, it won’t be long before a strong lobbying force is taking their religion to congress in an attempt to impose it on the rest of us through more regulations ( like fat taxes, banning antibiotics etc.).

So the next time you buy clothes or sheets look for the “Made from 100% Biotech Cotton” label. Wait, I don’t think there is one. It seems the textile and retail clothes industry is missing a huge opportunity to market their ‘greenness’!


‘Will wal-Mart’s organic cotton save the planet?’ Avery, Dennis T., Avery, Alex A. Feedstuffs . June 19,2006 (reference link)

Agricultural Outlook /August 2000 USDA ERS: (link)

Purcell, J.P. & Perlak, F.J. (2004). Global impact of insect-resistant (bt) cotton. AgBioForum, 7(1&2), 27-30. Available on the World Wide Web:

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