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


2 thoughts on “Battle of the Cottons

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