Battle of the Cottons

This week I came across an interesting and thought provoking topic in one of my classes. The topic: Organic Cotton Vs. Conventional Cotton Vs. BT Cotton. There is currently alot of hype surrounding GMO products and whether there are any health or environmental impacts associated with the use of them. Now here is where it gets interesting, because this is an excellent example of how complex the topic of sustainability and environmental issues are. So here are some facts and I’ll leave you to decide whether the benefits outway the drawbacks in each situation.

The Low-Down on Cotton

Cotton is a major global commodity that is produced mainly for its fibres. These fibres can be found in the cotton boll which are basically pods shaped like tiny footballs that hang off the cotton plant. The problem arises when pests like cotton bollworms and boll weevils puncture through the protective pod thereby breaking the cotton fibres into shorter sections. So farmers needed a way to keep these pests out which led us to a few different methods of cotton growing.

Conventional Cotton 

This is the cotton that is grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. These pesticides are typically applied by aerial application onto fields which classifies them as a contact pesticide, meaning they protect the plant surface that is in contact with the spray. One of the problems with this method of application is that there is pesticide spray drift damage. This often leads to non-targeted species that are outside of the crop area becoming affected due to the unconfined nature of spraying. There are also unknown health risks related to breathing in the airborn pesticides. However despite these concerns, conventional methods are still widely used due to their low cost and ease of application.

 Transgenic Cotton

This method of producing cotton starts with the seedlings. Cotton seeds are genetically modified to include the insecticide Bacillus Thuringiensis hence the name BT Cotton. With the BT actually in the DNA of the plant this will have a systemic pesticide effect whereby the pesticide spreads through the plant’s tissue and covers the entire plant. The safety and environmental impacts of this method have been and continue to be questioned, but there are some benefits to this growing technique. BT cotton eliminates the risk of spray drift damage by targeting only the pests that try to invade the cotton boll. It may also have positive human health impacts by reducing the risk of farmers breathing in air born pesticides. In addition, because the pesticides are contained within the DNA of the plant there is no need for routine applications which reduces the amount of fuel used in spraying fields.

Organic Cotton

Now this is a tricky one to write about, because organic materials in Canada are not always very well regulated and the word is often thrown around among producers with no clearly defined meaning. The intentions of organic cotton are often good but when we go to do the research it’s sometimes hard to find the science backing up the claims. So here’s what I’ve found. Organic cotton by its most basic definition means cotton that is grown through organic farming methods that do not use synthetic inputs (fertilizers or pesticides). However there is currently no legal definition for the use of the word organic. In addition, attaining certification can be very costly for farmers and involves a large amount of paperwork and monitoring. Some form of pest repellent must be used on the cotton crops and this means that less regulated ‘natural’ alternatives such as neem oil are often used. These natural alternatives do not have to go through the same testing that synthetic pesticides go through and so there may be a false belief that they are completely safe.

So there are some facts for you to think about. Let us know what you think! Does one method outway the other? Or does this example reinstate that choosing the best product in terms of sustainability and organic content is a complicated process? Many factors such as human health, environment, social and economic impact must be weighed and each case may need to be examined individually.


Ayaz Shaikh, M. (2011). Sustainable eco friendly organic cotton. Pakistan Textile Journal, 60(11).

Gomiero, T. (2011). Environmental Impact of Different Agricultural Management Practices: Conventional vs. Organic Agriculture. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 30(1-2), 95–124.

Huang, J., Hu, R., Pray, C., Qiao, F., & Rozelle, S. (2003). Biotechnology as an alternative to chemical pesticides: a case study of Bt cotton in China. Agricultural Economics, 29(1), 55–67. doi:10.1111/j. 1574-0862.2003.tb00147.x

Murugesh Babu, K., Selvadass, M., & Somashekar, R. (2013). Characterization of the conventional and organic cotton fibres. Journal of the Textile Institute, 104(10), 1101–1112. doi:10.1080/00405000.2013.774948

Pray, C. E., Huang, J., Hu, R., & Rozelle, S. (2002). Five years of Bt cotton in China – the benefits continue. The Plant Journal, 31(4), 423–430. doi:10.1046/j.1365-313X.2002.01401.x


Be a Sustainable Shopper

So I am sure you have all heard of the more common ways to be eco-friendly when shopping. It may be difficult to think of how your shopping habits can have an impact, but think of how often we all go shopping! Every day? Every other day? Every bit can help with these tips on how to make more environmentally conscious decisions when you are shopping.


1) Bring your friends.

Has your weekly shopping day rolled around? Go out with your housemates or friends and take a taxi together, carpool or even take the bus. Traveling to the store together rather than separately will help save fuel and minimize traveling cost.



2) Look for Less: less plastic, less packaging.

Everywhere we look things are wrapped in plastic and over packaged. Look for less packaging especially when grocery shopping. If you can find a substitute without the wrap choose that. Look for fresh fruits and veggies without the excess plastic. Peppers, apples and oranges can all taste just as good without the packaging. Another tip: bring paper bags along to package your fruit rather than the plastic bags they provide in supermarkets, they often rip from the weight anyway. When picking out cereal products, some brands have reduced their packaging by only using a bag or a box rather than both. It may not seem like much but it could cut the waste that ends up in your bin in half. Personal body care products are often another source of excess packaging. Bars of soap are a great example of a product that can be bought with very little or no packaging as an alternative. Handmade bars of soap often come with no packaging for the same cost.

3) Look for recyclable materials.

In Guelph plastic containers labeled with a 1, 2, 4, 5 or 7 are all recyclable in the city blue bins. Go the extra mile and look for these numbers when purchasing personal care products. That way you can feel good investing in products that can be recycled and reused.

4) Think about where you shop.

Whether it’s supporting the local farmer’s market or shopping in a store that you know has an active recycling program for its products or is involved in other environmentally responsible activities, think about where you shop. Decide what’s important to you and try to ask the right questions and make sure you are shopping somewhere that supports what you’re passionate about.  Many stores have programs in place to take back products they sell and properly recycle them so if it’s somewhere you shop regularly it may be worth asking.


Now I am sure you have heard this tip before: Bring your own bag. But sometimes we forget it in the car or don’t have one on hand if you are on a spontaneous shopping trip. So think of other alternative ways to carry out your products. If you carry a purse or a backpack, and it’s anywhere near as large as mine you can probably fit a good portion of your purchases inside. Bought just one or two items? Try carrying them out with you. Other larger items may be easier to carry out rather than fumbling with stretching a bag over them. Some stores have sticker handles they can put on heavier items to help you carry them, just ask the cashier! Especially if you’ve come shopping with a group of friends you can help each other carry out items.

So next time you’re headed to the store keep these tips in mind or think of some new tips that work for you. The first step in becoming a sustainable shopper is to be aware of our different options and make these conscious decisions when we are making our purchases. Think of every purchase you make as a vote! We can all send a strong message through our decisions as consumers.

Are you putting your votes in the right place?