Monday, February 11, 2019

Cleaner Cotton

We embrace technology when it comes to our sewing machines and rotary cutters.  Let's embrace technology that brings us cleaner cotton.

Transgenic crops contain genes inserted from another organism with desirable traits.  For instance, Bt cotton and corn contain genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that commonly lives in soil. Cotton engineered with Bt can produce a protein that is toxic to the cotton boll weevil, which means that farmers don't have to spray fields with pesticides that target the boll weevil.  It also means that land and water don't have to be used to grow the biologically-derived pesticides that organic farmers rely on.

In the US, Monsanto sells versions of Bt cotton with and without resistance to RoundUp, a herbicide.  There are valid reasons to be suspicious of heavy reliance on RoundUp that are treated elsewhere.  Monsanto seeds are not cheap and may not be affordable for low-income countries.  However, Brazilian scientists have independently developed a Bt cotton, and I hope that will drive down seed prices.

Bt cotton is not a panacea as cotton is susceptible to pests besides the boll weevil.  However, farmers in both India and the US report a 75% or greater reduction in pesticide use.

Cotton is a thirsty crop.  When I started following GMO cotton news around 2005, GMO cotton used 30% less cotton than organic cotton.  That number is now 50% less.  Not only can GMO cotton be grown with less water, it can be grown with saltier water that is not suitable for other crops.  Water scarcity is the the largest problem for many farmers (intricately tied to climate change) so I look askance at anyone who markets organic cotton as the environmental choice.

I was heartened to read about Cleaner Cotton™ and Sustainable Cotton movements.  Farmers are growing GMO cotton and using integrated pest management and crop rotation to reduce the use of fertilizer and pesticides/herbicides.  It's not organic.  It's better than organic.
The cost to grow organic cotton in California is higher than brands are willing to pay. In organic trials that SCP farmers have run, organic cotton fields yielded as much as 30% less fiber than conventional. Cleaner Cotton™, on average, yields more than 1,250 pounds of cotton per acre compared to average yields of 925 pounds in organic production. Lacking a secure market, farmers are unwilling to risk the lower yields and corresponding decrease in financial return.
quince & co. introduced their Cleaner Cotton™yarn, Willet, in 2015.  It's a start, but it contained some infuriating misinformation.  I'm not referring to the lack of credit given to genetic engineering.

quince & co. Willet Cleaner Cotton
"California is home to the finest cotton growing land in the country" is a lie.  The SJV is a desert; that's why the land was cheap and did not already have boll weevils plaguing the areas that had previously grown cotton.  During WWII, the military needed cotton for uniforms and lacked manpower to deal with pests in the southeast, which did have the water to support cotton.

Pretty cotton field in the desert of SJV shown on quince & co website
Cotton was planted in the SJV and irrigated with spring runoff from the mountains supplemented by fossil water in ancient aquifers.  Those aquifers are now so depleted, that the land has sunk 70-100 feet in 60 years of agriculture! It's time to retire the land and let the desert reclaim most of the southern SJV.

Cotton uses more water in CA than almonds despite smaller acreage
quince & co. also touted the family farm* that grows their cotton, Mari and Gary Martin of Pikalok farms.  They sound like lovely people, very concerned with modern farming and good land stewardship.  But there is no getting around the fact that their farm is in Mendota, a desert climate with only 9 inches of annual rainfall on average and as hot as a blast furnace in the summer.

Moreover, even at $8.50 per 50g skein, the Martins still rely on crop subsidies from the government.  Pikalok Farms received $4,214,481 in Total USDA Subsidies 1995-2017.  That's not including the water subsidies they receive from California.  They are small potatoes.  They received less than 1% of the cotton subsidies in their county over the same time period.

Just in case I've been unclear.  We should not grow cotton in the deserts of California ($3.3 B in USDA crop subsidies) or Arizona ($1.2 B).  Those industries were fed by war-time desperation for cotton and absence of boll weevils in the southwest.  Boll weevils are now endemic in the southwest as well, so there is no reason not to move cotton production back into the southeast.

Pests can be reduced by crop rotation.  GMO cotton, with lower water requirements, can be grown over a greater geographical range.  This also helps pest management.

Room&Board is now selling bedding made from cotton grown on a rain-irrigated farm.  The cotton is grown in Alabama, woven in South Carolina and sewn in Minnesota.
[Red Land Cotton] plant cover crops to reduce erosion and runoff, practice crop rotation and graze cattle on their land. All of this allows them to grow cotton without artificial irrigation—an exception to the norm among cotton farmers.

Sunset at Red Land Cotton

Sewing the bedding in MN

Gorgeous bedding
Even at $270 for a duvet, Red Land Farms still took $4,921,061 in USDA crop subsidies 1995-2017.

Farming is a tough and heartbreaking business and I think that some level of non-market support is needed.  However, we should be able to have rational debates about how much is appropriate and the best way to spend our collective money and effort.

When we talk about sustainable sewing, be prepared to pay more and to take a more nuanced approach to what constitutes "good" and "bad" production.

Since I've started tracking how much I buy and use, I've been buying 2-3x as much as I sew.  So it's time for me to use what I have and to recycle textiles when appropriate.  I'll still buy small amounts of new stuff to help create a market for responsible producers/sellers, but I will need to consume less.

*All farmers belong to a family.  Some families have small farms, some have huge farms.  There is nothing inherently wonderful about small farms, though they tend to be less efficient than large ones.

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