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The sustainability of organic cotton and GM cotton – Part 1 of 2

The sustainability of organic cotton and GM cotton – Part 1 of 2


cottonCotton is one of the world’s most important natural fibres. It’s used by nearly everyone on earth every day, and supports 250 million people’s livelihoods. It’s a renewable natural resource, but only if we manage it responsibly.
Cotton is by far the largest natural fibre based on a renewable resource used for textiles. Roughly 40% of all textile fibres are made of cotton or cotton blends.
Today, the largest cotton growing nations are China, India, USA and Pakistan (see table). Cotton is one of the most important agricultural commodities.

The largest cotton consumer is by far China 45.5 mio bales, followed by India (19.5), Pakistan (10.3) and Turkey (5.3), reflecting the strength of the textile industry in these countries[1].

cotton statistics2012Cotton production is also affected by competition for acres, especially in the Midwest of the USA between corn and soybeans. While corn is diverted to ethanol distillation, fewer acres have been allocated to soybean and cotton.
Due to the subtle balance of supply and demand, prices have been highly volatile in recent years. Especially in 2010/2011 sky rocket high prices have been experienced, despite weak global economy.


Price of cotton future on ICE futures exchance. Click on image to enlarge.


Conventional Cotton is a thirsty and sensitive crop, requiring a lot of water and pesticides. Cotton agriculture is one of the highest consumer of pesticides all over the world, contaminating rivers and ground water. The term grey water footprint[2] has been created to describe the impact of the water pollution during growth and processing, and cotton is a significant contributor.
Moreover, a lot of water is used for irrigation of cotton in dry regions of the world. Fresh water is a scarce resource on planet earth.
There are entirely different approaches to make cotton more sustainable. The biotech industry promotes genetically modified cotton, while environmentalists focus on organic cotton.
Yields, cost and water demand to determine pros and cons of each respective concept are debated since long time. Depending who funded scientific research and depending which parameters have been examined, all kinds of conclusions can be found to support one or the other point of view.

GM cotton

Genetically modified cotton or GM cotton is cotton which is biotechnologically modified to produce a substance (Bt toxin) that protects it against insect pests. A prominent type is “Bt cotton” which is cultivated in many countries. Scientists spliced genes from the soil bacterium bacillus thuriniensis (Bt) into cotton plants, they created a modified strain that makes proteins which are toxic when eaten by the bollworm caterpillar. Therefore the use of chemical pesticides would be reduced substantially and farmers would benefit from the resultant increase in yields, according to the biotech corporations who developed the GM seeds. Major corporations developing and promoting GM cotton are large biotech corporations such as Monsanto (Bollgard brand) and Bayer Crop Science (FiberMax brand).
In the last decade, GM cotton has become very widespread, covering in 2013 70% percent of the world’s cotton, according to the ISAAA[3] . Most GM cotton is grown in China, India and the USA which are the three largest cotton growing countries in the world (see table above).
GM cotton has been a big commercial success for the biotech industry since it was introduced in the 1990s.

Biotech crops growth emerging vs industrial nations

BiotechCropsShareIn the USA, more than 90% of all cotton grown today is GM cotton, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

GM-cotton USA

share of GM cotton (%) in the United States [4]

In India, despite very high penetration rates, more reports have been published that GM cotton failed to deliver its promises [5]. Even biotech giant Monsanto, the supplier of Bt cotton, acknowledged that insects developed resistance in their Bollgard® I cotton in four states in Western India [6,7,8]. According to Monsanto, “the factors that may have contributed to pink bollworm resistance are limited refuge planting and the early use of unapproved Bt cotton seed, planted prior to GEAC approval of Bollgard I cotton, which may have had lower protein expression levels.“, in other words, blaming inproper crop management.
Not only has Bt cotton been rendered ineffective, it has also led to detection of some new pests never before reported before in India. It is toxic only to bollworm and does not control any other pests of cotton[6].
Meanwhile, the biotech industry has also been engineered a second generation of Bt cotton to deliver a double punch of toxin. Monsanto, whose Bollgard II trademark cotton is the industry leader, is already working on a third generation Bt strain.

Cost comparison of GM cotton vs non-GM cotton

At the end of the day, cost and profits matter. Farmer will have to spend money on more costly GM seeds, less on pesticides, while hoping for better yields.
With respect to main cost contributors, an interesting study illustrated some important influencers on cost (example from Chinese farms [9]).

GM-cotton Cost China

example from Chinese farms, according to Fok & Xu [9] 2007

According to this study, pest control cost are down but seed cost are dramatically increased for GM crops – but yield wasn´t reported higher unless GM hybrid cotton is cultivated – the real thing seem to be GM hybrid varieties. Consequently farm profits would be substantially improved for GM hybrids compared to non GM cotton types.
Not entirely surprisingly, activist groups are fiercefully opposing to GM cotton. They prefer organic cotton.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is generally understood as cotton grown from non genetically modified plants, which is grown without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides. Its production also promotes and enhances biodiversity and biological cycles.
Often Organic agriculture is combined with Fairtrade which is primarily a social label and focuses on improving the working and living conditions of smallholder farmers. Fairtrade standards also include environmental criteria.
In contrast to the widespread success of GM cotton, and despite the endorsement of various big brands the penetration of organic cotton is rather low, less than 1% and actually declining.
According to the Organic Cotton Market Reports released by Organic Exchange, global sales of organic cotton apparel and home textile products grew significantly in the last decade, reaching an estimated $4.3 billion peak in 2009 at a CAGR of 35% [10] . But in recent years organic cotton has declined substantially.
Although 81 percent of brands and retailers responding to the 2011 survey said they plan to use more organic cotton, production dropped by 37 percent
claims the website [11], for example in India, still by far the largest producer of organic cotton in the world, accounting for 75% of the global organic cotton production [12]. However, the total organic fibre production of the country has fallen by close to 50% from close to 200.000 metric tones peak in 2009-10, to roughly 100.000 metric tonnes in 2011-12, as global brands shift to Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) [13] . Its members include European brands adidas, H&M and Ikea. BCI is a marketing-driven green alternative to conventional cotton grown using chemicals, which is growing rapidly and getting premium over the conventional cotton, according to Economic Times of India [14]. The advent of better cotton initiative (BCI) and failure of organic cotton to give the expected 10% more price than conventional cotton has led to reduction in the area under organic cotton in India.
A drop in demand for organic cotton in the West and declining premiums of organic cotton, reduced to 5-7 cents per pound over conventional cotton, compared with 20-25 cents five years ago, and reduced orders from retailers, such as US giant Walmart, was also blamed for the sharp reduction of organic cotton crops [15].
According to Textile Exchange, in 2012 the largest promoters of organic cotton in retail have been C&A, H&M and Nike, just to name the top three.

Top10 organic cotton users

Organic cotton articles are positioned in a eco niche of fashion. But the question is how much of this is serious and how much of this is marketing.

Cases of fraud in organic cotton

In 2011, there have been reports of alleged fraud – or should we better say “neglected vigilance” -when the Swedish fashion retailer H&M as well as other European brands, including C&A and Tchibo, were caught selling certified-organic cotton clothing contaminated with genetically modified cotton [16,17]. Roughly 30 percent of the tested samples contained genetically modified cotton. The contaminated cotton was traced back to India, which is responsible for more than half of the global supply of organic cotton. Is this now systematic fraud or simply incompetence of the retailers to manage the supply chain of organic cotton?

To be continued.

In the second part of this article I will discuss potentially unsustainable processing steps and water consumption in organic cotton, textile standards, pesticide use and yields of GM cotton vs organic cotton.


[1] US Department of Agricuture, 2011 data

[2] Chapagain, A.K. et al., “The water footprint of cotton consumption….”, Ecological Economics 60 (2006), 186-203

[3] James,C., 2013 ISAAA report of global status of biotech/GM crops

[4] U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS)

[5] Maharashtra state government orders German seed company to compensate farmers as cotton hybrids fail to deliver
[6] Bt cotton has failed admits Monsanto
[7] Monsanto website: Pink Bollworm Resistance to GM Cotton in India
[8] Failure of Monsanto Bt Cotton ,
[9] Fok,M, Xu,N.: GM cotton in China
[10] Organic Cotton Facts
[11]  H&M, C&A, Nike Top Organic Cotton Users
[12] Organic Cotton ‘Shows Signs of Stabilizing’
[13]  Better Cotton Initiative
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), established in 2005, is a not-for-profit organisation stewarding the global standards for Better Cotton, and bringing together cotton’s complex supply chain, from the farmers to the retailers.
[14]  Organic cotton production declines in India as brands shift to Better Cotton Initiative
[15]  Organic cotton loses premium on demand-supply mismatch
[16]  Why Is a Major Clothing Retailer Selling Fake Organic Cotton?
[17] H&M, Other Brands Guilty of “Organic Cotton Fraud”?

Christian Schumacher

Dr. Christian Schumacher is the founder and managing director of StepChange Innovations GmbH, a technology development and consulting firm based in Germany. He has more than 20 years of experience in the chemical industry with global players such as Hoechst AG and DyStar Textilfarben GmbH as head of R&D, senior regional business manager Asia Pacific, head of e-commerce, head of marketing services, new product development manager and R&D chemist.

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