Monday, December 03, 2018

Which is more sustainable, GMO or organic cotton?

The answer is...GMO cotton!

I was so discouraged by the number of sewing bloggers in instagrammers who equated organic cotton with sustainable sewing.  I felt like screaming into the void and started collecting data.  I collected so much data and research articles to counter the popular narrative that it won't fit in one post.

This topic is complex and will be broken down into several posts, interspersed with stories about water, because cotton and water are intimately interlinked.  GMO (genetically modified) cotton now produces twice as much fibre as organic cotton for the same water input (and grows with lower quality water and soil.)  Given the severe water shortages around the world and the land poisoning and subsidence problems caused by irrigating cotton fields around the world, I think that using organic cotton when there are better alternatives is just irresponsible.

I'm reminded of this 2015 Pew study:

The views in 2017 were similarly discouraging with white people more likely to believe conspiracies theories over scientific expertise than people of color (POC.)  I have many reservations about Roundup-ready crops, but there is a whole universe of GMO crops that are better for the environment than legacy organic crops.

As Science Moms says,
GMOs are presented in the media as inserting genes of one species into another species. But that’s only one meaning. Genetic modification also means selective breeding, cross breeding, mutagenesis, genome editing, and other techniques.
Everything is made of chemicals. They show a long list of all the scary-sounding chemicals in an all-natural blueberry. Pears naturally make formaldehyde.

The “most brilliant marketing move of the last ten years” was to convince everyone that organic is pesticide free. Copper sulfate is really bad for the environment, and it’s allowed in organic farming.

Data doesn’t support claims that organic is pesticide free, better for environment, or healthier.

On a really sad note, did you read this story about the artist that worked with mussel shells for 15 years, slowly killing herself, without realizing that natural materials can be toxic?
She’d spend up to 12 hours a day molding the shells with a dentist’s drill. While she ventilated her studio, she didn’t make any special effort to avoid the shell byproducts, assuming they were benign.

But almost immediately after starting the work, Genser started feeling ill. After years living with various autoimmune disorders, she was used to her body betraying her. But she soon realized these symptoms were different. As her limbs alternately ached and became immobile, she suffered neurological ailments as well. At her worst moments, she could barely speak, lost her short-term memory and stopped recognizing close friends.

She saw a litany of specialists in neurological health and psychiatrists who prescribed antipsychotics and antidepressants, but nothing seemed to help.

“To be fair to my doctors, they did ask me, ‘Are you working with anything toxic?’ And I’d say, ‘No no, I’m working with all natural materials, and we’d all move on,’” she said. “I was so certain that these mussels, which the government said I could eat safely and buy in the market as food, could never be bad for me.”
She dry-sanded shells for 15 years without wearing any respiratory or skin protection!  You can safely eat some parts of toxic plants and animals.  For instance, I love peaches.  But I eat only the soft flesh and leave the hard pit (and the cyanide in them) alone.  Mussel muscles can be safe to eat (in moderation,) but the shells bioaccumulate metals in the water.  You definitely should handle them with care.

It breaks my heart to see sewing bloggers fall for disinformation campaigns like when Sue quoted a natural soap "expert".  I sent her a horrified email and she posted a follow-up.  I wrote:
Scientists now have to take classes to learn the rhetorical tricks used by people who would slander us. I recognize one device in her description of Titanium Dioxide. Link it with something that is not safe to put on your skin, like house paint. Yes, TiO2 is sometimes used in house paint, but it would be very expensive house paint. It’s the safer and brighter white alternative to lead. You can also accurately call TiO2 the active ingredient in chemical-free baby-safe sunscreen.

EDTA is a perfectly safe preservative. Your soap is safer with it than without it. In fact, we eat it all the time as a food preservative rather than eat rancid food.
Ironically, the EDTA that the "expert" listed as a skin irritant and bad chemical is the chelating agent used to treat patients suffering from heavy metal poisoning like Genser.


  1. Thank you for this. Important to have voices like yours talking about actual science. The echo chamber of misinformation gets louder all the time.

    1. Exactly. Did you hear that CNN put self-proclaimed food expert, the Food Babe, on TV to discuss e Coli?

      She proscribes not eating anything that you can't pronounce. I wonder if she can pronounce naturally occurring toxins like cyanide and arsenic? I'd rather eat EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid.)

  2. Thank you!!!! I just wish they could start doing something with the massive amount of flax fibre my home province (one of the largest flax producers in the world) burns annually. 😭

    1. Burn? Do they at least generate electricity from it? Flax can be used to make rayon as well as linen cloth. My husband's MIT classmate is working on turning agricultural waste into biofuel w/o the extra energy input. (Basically trying to mimic biological enzymes at scale.)

  3. I appreciate you researching & sharing this information. I used to fall for the "organic food/cotton is superior" line before I realised it was a clever marketing strategy. Lots of classism embedded in those beliefs too - organic cotton isn't cheap.

    1. We shouldn't shame people if they don't have access to clean food. We should redouble our efforts to make clean food and water and air available to all! And organic/=clean, although it is cleaner overall. We should come up with an alternate metric.

  4. Oh, the poor mussels lady. She was on CBC last night as well. Virtual fistfights on crafters group about how she must be making this all up. I've met a number of people in her position; recycling painted wood and getting lead poisoning while sanding it down. I used to be a potter, and learned enough about silicosis and lead poisoning from glazes that I am the dust control bitch, wielding my hearing protection and my respirator. As my dad said in the workshop: Assume everything in here wants to kill you, and treat it with respect.

    My issue with GMOs is Monsanto and the RoundUP Ready seeds. The company sells you sterile seeds that can be treated with RoundUp. And you have to buy more of both of them for successive crops. One company cannot rule them all; monocultures fail spectacularly. I understand they need to make money, but to control the whole process is wrong. Making more food cleanly and efficiently and ethically is better, and GMOs can be part of that.
    As ever, thank you for science.

    1. You are entirely correct! Round-up ready GMO crops, which most scientists that don't work for Monsanto agree is a very bad idea, has been a black eye for GMO acceptance.


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