Cotton - always in the middle of social and environmental problems: could it be replaced for the benefit of mankind
Keskiviikko 10.7.2019 klo 12:17 - Mikko Nikinmaa
Cotton clothes, all of us wear them. However, do we realize all the social and environmental problems associated and the fact that we could presently achieve a cotton-free society which would be a contribution towards combatting climate change, social inequality and environmental destruction?
Initially, the cotton production was a strong component for American slavery. Cotton fields in southern USA needed workers, and they were brought in as slaves from Africa. Although also other forms of cultivation such as growing of tobacco and sugar cane needed workers, cotton cultivation was the most important one, generating rich plantation owners and poor slaves, and later the racial problems in America, which are still a big problem.
The problem with genetically modified organisms really boils down to cotton. Out of the approximately 32 million hectares, where cotton is grown, approximately 25 million hectares is genetically modified (GM). Consequently, it is my bet that people against the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) daily wear clothing that has genetically modified cotton. GM cotton was marketed to farmers saying that the need for pesticides would be reduced. However, that has not turned out to be the case. While the insecticide use in USA and Australia has markedly decreased after the introduction of bt-cotton (a genetically modified plant, which produces its own toxin against several insect pests), the herbicide use has not decreased. In most other cotton-producing countries pesticide use has not decreased, partly because secondary harmful insects require heavy insecticide use to ensure high production. Further, it appears that the difference between pesticide use in large industrial cotton cultivation (decrease in insecticide use) and small cotton farmers (no change or increase in insecticide use) has increased.
The heavy pesticide use in cotton production is an important component in causing the deaths of non-target organisms. Insecticides kill non-selectively all insects, be they beneficial or harmful. Research on waterways has indicated that agricultural pesticides kill aquatic invertebrates and fish. Often the insecticides are more toxic to aquatic creatures than to their target organisms. Further, it was recently estimated that close to 70 000 000 birds per year die directly because of pesticide use.
Although cotton cultivation does not require very much water (10000 l/kg cotton produced worldwide), the fact that it is grown in dry areas largely for export with the profits going not to local farmers but to big agricultural companies often from foreign countries means that the water use does not support the local people’s food production or water needs. Consequently, the poor people in the dry areas continue to suffer from food and water shortage in India and Africa. Partly the recent trend that food shortage is again in the increase in Eastern Africa could be alleviated by stopping cotton cultivation and using the water for cultivating edible crops. This, as such, would decrease the number of refugees trying to come to the paradise in Europe.
Production of cotton clothing has also another social problem. In many countries producing cotton clothing cheaply, child labour is used. To best combat this, e.g. European collaboration would be helpful. As the final question one must ask if cotton is necessary as primary cloth material any more. Earlier it was, as all the other fibres that could be used for producing fabrics yielded much harder and therefore less comfortable cloth than cotton. However, recently the situation has changed, and currently wood fibres can yield as soft and comfortable cloth as cotton. Since the need for paper production has markedly decreased, wood could be used for cloth-making.
Replacing cotton with wood fibre would thus be a highly beneficial both socially and environmentally. First, the land and water used now for growing cotton for export with most profits not coming to local people could come completely to help the food and water needs of local communities. This would decrease the refugee pressure to North. Because the pesticide use would be reduced, all the negative issues associated with them would also be reduced. Growing trees for fibre production would not have a negative effect on carbon footprint globally, most likely the opposite, as the life length of clothing is longer than that of paper products. Thus, one would be combatting climate change, whereby the number of climate refugees in the future would decrease. Finally, as the right-wing populists always say that isolationist policies are needed for the success of “our” industry, producing cloth would be a significant new direction to pulp industry. All in all, replacing cotton could be a good example of how thinking globally has positive influence on social and environmental problems in the world.
Keskiviikko 3.10.2018 klo 20:10 - Mikko Nikinmaa
Cotton is undoubtedly the least sustainable agricultural product. Yet, cotton clothing is used by everyone. The dark sides of cotton cultivation are many. Cotton fields cover large areas of arid landscape and virtually all the water and land are used for producing cotton instead of food in countries, where people are starving. It would not really matter, if the income from cotton sales came to the starving people enabling them to buy food. Unfortunately, this is not the case: typically the income from producing cotton goes to foreign companies or to rich land-owners. Cotton cultivation can be considered to be a reason for the African immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to come to rich Europe. Most cotton these days is from gene modified plants. And even people strongly resisting GMOs have GMO cotton clothing. Copious amounts of insecticides and other pesticides are used in cotton fields. Cotton cultivation with its high pesticide usage can be considered as being one reason in the possible decline of insect populations -there is yet no insecticide which would kill only the harmful ones but leave, e.g., the beneficial pollinators intact. In addition to insects, it has been supposed that the heavy insecticide use is the cause of death of millions of birs: birds eat insecticide-affected insects, and get enough poison to be affected, so that their likelihood of death directly because of poisoning or indirectly because of the insecticide-induced alterations in behaviour. There are also reports of much declining bird populations, and the insecticide use of cotton cultivation is a likely contributor to them.
So what kind of material should sustainably produced clothing be made of? After all, we need clothing. Artificial fibres are not an option, since they are normally oil-based, and can be said to contribute to the (micro)plastics problem. That leaves wood fibres. Earlier on their use has not been considered environmentally friendly, because of toxic chemicals, which were needed for making wood fibres suitable for cloth-making. However, the new methods for producing cloth using wood fibre does not require toxic chemicals, and the process can be considered almost fully closed, i.e. virtually no effluents are produced before the final product is in the hands of consumers. The first pilot factories producing cloth from wood with the new methodology are being taken to use. So, compared with cotton: agricultural land is returned to food production, no pesticides are used – thus, the eco-friendly solution, clothing from wood fibre. In the beginning the wood-cloth is probably more expensive than cotton, but regardless should be used by anybody preaching sustainable way of life.
Lauantai 31.12.2016 klo 11:31 - Mikko Nikinmaa
Hopefully the new year 2017 will bring forward good things for the environment. There are many possibilities - new approaches just require that we are not stuck in old ways of thinking.
I give just one example. Many people are concerned with gene modifications. Yet, the same people use cotton clothing; the likelihood that gene-modified cotton has been used for making cotton clothes is overwhelming. In addition, the use of pesticides in cotton cultivation is very high, meaning that the use of cotton clothing probably causes the deaths of millions of birds which eat contaminated insects. Further, cotton production uses both water and space, which would better be used for food production. So, all these things urge us to change from cotton use to something new...
We already have the possibility to change to the something new. It is possible to produce cotton-like threads from the long-fibred fir trees. Now that paper use is in decline and pulp industry is probably environmentally the most advanced, changing from paper as the major product to cloth would be both feasible and environmentally friendly.
Such change would be possible, but would require consumer pressure. If the consumers demand a change, that will happen (albeit slowly). We were able to stop acid rain in Europe, eeven though it required expenses. So why should we not change from cotton clothing to tree fibre-based clothing, as it is an environmental advance with little cost?