Reasons for concern regarding GMO’s

29 09 2009

From last week’s post, you’ll remember we explained that GMO crops (to date) do not fulfill their promise:

  1. They do not decrease hunger and poverty;
  2. Data shows that GMO crops actually increase pesticide and herbicide use;
  3. They do not yield more; in a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Failure to Yield, data shows that despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.   In fact data points to possibly lower yields than would have been achieved by NOT using GMO seed.

But I still didn’t understand  what the fuss is all about.  After all, companies have been making claims for products forever.  Shouldn’t the product just die by way of non-purchase?  Why should governments get involved and prohibit the use of GMO seeds?  Why are the organic trade associations around the world in such an uproar?

After all, the promise of genetic engineering  is very powerful –  to be able to feed the world as populations increase and agricultural land gets squeezed.   James McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University, says that genetic engineering is “a hidden realm of opportunity to feed the world’s impending 9 billion a diet produced in an environmentally responsible way.” Time Magazine reported in September, 2009 that a scientist at Texas A & M University has discovered a way to remove the gossypol (a naturally occurring toxic chemical that protects the plant from infestation) from cottonseeds.  Today cottonseeds can be used for humans only after an extensive refining process to remove the gossypol.  Also in the works are crops that can produce higher yields with less water; a dust from genetically modified ferns that can remove heavy metals from the soil;  crops that can withstand drought or high salt content in soil; and other GM technologies that “have the potential not only to streamline production, but to play a meaningful role in reducing their carbon footprint.”(1)  Sounds pretty good to me.

In the United States, we haven’t heard much about genetic engineering, because in 1992, the
FDA unilaterally decided (in its opinion) that as long as a GM food is no more toxic, allergenic, or any less “substantially equivalent” than its standard counterpart, it need not be labeled to show the process that created it. That is quite different from the European labeling laws, introduced in 1997, which required that any food containing residues of engineered DNA or protein must be recorded as GM.

So what is it about genetic engineering that has these other governments and organizations so concerned?  Part of the problem may be that the scientific community does not like the unknown, and it seems to have not reached a consensus on the safety of these products for our health or for the environment, although it’s hard to determine what interests are behind which studies.

These areas of concern, in addition to those of the plants developing increasing tolerances to pesticides and herbicides, include :

  1. The concept of “drift”:   that is,  pollen from genetically engineered plants will spread by insects and the winds to affect non-GMO plants.  (After all, a bee can travel up to 30 km or more.)  This contaminates both conventional and organic fields.  And farmers or food processors lose money because of unwanted contamination.   The  Organic Trade Association of Canada recently reported the discovery of contaminated flax seed in some German food products;  native corn in Mexico (where it is illegal to plant genetically engineered corn) was reported to have new GM genes found in the genome, where they could interfere with the plant’s normal genes.(2)   “It’s time for biotech companies to be good parents and take responsibility for their children. The owners of GE crops need to assume the liability for loss of market access due to their technologies appearing in countries or products in which they are not wanted. As GE products are not permitted under organic standards, the organic sector in Canada is extremely concerned by the prospect of losing access to its essential markets in Europe, Asia and around the world,” said Matthew Holmes, managing director of OTA in Canada.  According to the U.S. Organic Trade Association,  “Bt contamination is  a trespass, a nuisance, unwanted, and can lead to significant economic losses for organic farmers.  This is a clear example of potentially disastrous environmental degradation, with the added problem that consumers seeking products that contain no genetically engineered materials may be denied this choice because of inadvertent contamination.”
  2. Concerns regarding human health: These are classed into those that fall under “unknown effect on human health” and allergenicity.   With regard to unknown effects, a study published by the Austrian government found that mice fed a type of genetically engineered corn produced fewer offspring and more females with no offspring, than mice fed conventional corn.  The effects were particularly pronounced in the third and fourth litters, after the mice had eaten the GE corn for a longer period of time.  Another study published in Lancet claimed that there are appreciable differences in the intestines of rats fed genetically engineered potatoes and those fed unmodified potatoes.(3)  The milk from cows injected with genetically engineered  bovine growth hormone rBGH  (sometimes called rBST)  has been found to have much higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone considered to be a high risk factor for breast, prostate, colon, lung and other cancers – and the milk has lowered nutritional value! (4). “This … should serve as a wake-up call to governments around the world that genetically engineered foods could cause long-term health damage,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety.       With regard to allergenicity, there is the possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may cause a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. When DNA from one organism is spliced into another, can it turn a non-allergenic food into one that will cause an allergic reaction in some people?
  3. Concerns regarding agricultural diversity:  The 1st conference on animal and plant breeding of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) was held in August, 2009.  Speakers at the conference made it clear that we are in a battle to save the diversity of today’s food in order to have future food.  According to Vandana Shivam,  who spoke at the conference, unprecendented weather is occurring in India with the disruption of life-giving monsoons which used to appear as regularly as clockwork.  Farmers growing GMO rice could not plant their seedlings because of lack of rain, while farmers who had access to heirloom drought-tolerant varieties were able to plant and get a crop.  Traditional farming used to include over 250 crops.  Now there are a mere 2 crops.  Community seed banks are springing up around India to preserve traditional varieities, and “freedom villages” are forming to prohibit GMOs because of their threat to traditional seeds.  You can learn more about the situation in India by reading “Stop the Biopiracy of Climate Resilient Crops” by clicking here. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on how organic farming, even with reduced yields, is more profitable for Indian farmers than conventional crops, because the farmers  no longer are subjected to high up front costs for chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and they can save  seeds from year to year.
  4. Concerns regarding the safety of wildlife in the surrounding areas of GM crops: A major study performed by the British government and published by the Royal Society,   found that GM crops had 33% fewer seeds for birds to eat at the end of the season, and even two years later there were still 25% fewer seeds.  As the study puts it: “While reduction or removal of the visible flora temporarily reduces the food available to farmland animals, the key to longer-term impacts is the ‘seed rain’ (seeds falling from weeds) and its contribution to the seedbank (weed seeds left in soil).” (5)  They concluded that over time this would have a dramatic impact on the bird populations which are dependent on these seeds.  There are also fewer bees, beetles, butterflies and other insects in the GM crops. Such invertebrates are food for mammals, birds and other animals, and many are important for controlling pests or recycling nutrients within the soil.
  5. Concerns regarding the use of Bt crops and organic agriculture:  Bt is often used in organic agriculture;  it is an excellent biological control for corn and cotton insect pests.  It is the most widely used biological control in organic agriculture.    But Bt engineered plants will lead quickly to significant insect resistance, depriving organic farmers of one of their most useful tools.
  6. Concerns regarding the business of corporate agriculture: Many are concerned that farmers are turning dependent on large multinational corporations (MNCs) for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs while also becoming more vulnerable to pressures to produce genetically engineered crops.   They fear the predatory nature of corporate agriculture and its attempts to corner the entire chain of food production from seeds to sales of food products.  Three companies — Cargill, Archer Daniels and Bunge — control nearly 90 per cent of global grain trade while DuPont and Monsanto dominate the global seed market. Eleven firms account for about half the world sales of seeds, of which about a quarter are sales of genetically engineered seeds. (6)  And agrichemical sales are concentrated in 6 firms which together control 85% of the annual pesticide market. (7)   The research into GMO crops is very expensive, meaning only large, well funded companies can afford the research.  It’s this last concern, that of “vertical integration” (i.e., a corporation taking over the entire food production cycle from the development of proprietary strains of DNA and the sales of seeds to farmers down to contracts with farmers that determine what is produced, how and for whom, and at what price and quality), that I want to focus on.

In an equity research paper done by Deutsche Banc of DuPont in 1999, they stated that they were willing to believe that GMOs were safe and “may provide a benefit for the environment” but that the perception wars are being lost by the industry.     “Not a day goes by lately where concerns and/or rebuttals are not in the press somewhere in the world. Domestic concerns regarding agbiotechnology are clearly on the rise, with the Monarch butterfly but one example of negative press causing a rethink of the future. For the most part, though, it has not yet gotten the attention of the ordinary U.S. citizen, but when it does – look out.”

The corporations which have so much at stake here know that they need a more aggressive marketing technique to promote the impression that GMOs are good and safe to use.  Agrichemical lobbyists are trying to convince the public that the industry is “science-based”.  A new global federation of agrichemical multinational corporations, Crop Life International, is the new representative of the “plant science industry”.  Crop Life’s annual report for 2007 makes the breathtaking claim that pesticides are actually good for the environment for a host of reasons, including “lower carbon dioxide emissions associated with the switch to no-till/reduced tillage farming systems, and less frequent pesticide applications made possible by biotech crops fuel savings.”

The agrichemical companies are vertically integrated, based on the law of efficiency similar to economies of scale which favors big corporations.  Antonio Tujan, Jr., international director of the Ibon Foundation Inc. (a research and educational institution specializing in socio-economic issues) says that “integration destroys the free market as it becomes increasingly dominated by the giants, which are able to dictate profits and what is produced.”  This turns the market into a sellers’ market, and farmers have little or no choice.  Farmers are forced to accept whatever they are asked to use such as seeds and pesticides.  A democratic market, in contrast, is a consumers’ market.

The big companies have a lot at stake, and the squabbling and double dealing – not to mention lawsuits and counter suits –  are worthy of a good thriller.   Monsanto, after years of acquiring seed companies while trying to become the major seed producer in the world,  filed a lawsuit in the spring accusing DuPont of patent infringement; DuPont countersued saying Monsanto wanted to protect its franchise at the expense of giving farmers access to better technology.   But in June, DuPont sued BASF over the same kind of alleged violations Monsanto sued it for in the spring – and of course, BASF countersued!

A more disturbing set of statistics is the number of lawsuits that Monsanto has filed against farmers who are accused of violating its patents.  It has built a department of 75 employees and set aside an annual budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of investigating and prosecuting farmers for patent infringement. For cases with recorded judgments, farmers have paid a mean of $412,259.54.  (Click here to read the entire report.) The table below gives the number of cases by year:

Number of Lawsuits by Year

Source:  The Center for Food Safety,  January 2005

According to Tom Wiley, a North Dakota farmer, farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they “did not buy, do not want,  will not use and cannot sell.”

This just in:   Monsanto announced on  August 13 that it would be raising prices for its genetically modifed seeds from 17% to 42% – saying that these new seeds will boost yields; this is part of the company’s drive to double profits by 2012. (8)

(1) Brandon, Hembree, “GMO rejection – ‘Fatal rush to judgment'”, June 3, 2009, Southeast Farm Press

(2) “Chapala Vindicated”, Organic Consumers Association, March 5, 2009, http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_17133.cfm

(3) “Effect of diets containing genetically mofidied potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine”, Lancet, Vol 354, No 9187, pp 1353-1354, Oct 1999

(4) http://www.preventcancer.com/consumers/general/milk.htm

(5) http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GMCHW.php

(6) Netto, Anil, “GMO Seeds:  “MNCs Gaining Total Control Over Farming”, December 12, 2007, Center for Research on Globalization

(7) Ibid.

(8) “A Seed Company Some Love to Hate”, Jim Jubak blog on MSN Money, http://blogs.moneycentral.msn.com/topstocks/archive/2009/08/14/a-seed-company-some-love-to-hate.aspx





GMO cotton

23 09 2009

gmo1The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) prohibits all “genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and their derivatives”.  According to the Organic Exchange, none of the organic growing standards established by any government allows for GMO crops.  In April, 2009, Germany announced a plan to ban all GMO crops in the country, citing concerns of the environmental impact, making Germany the latest in a string of EU countries to outlaw GMO crops.  And during a public comment period in 2000, the Organic Trade Association generated 275,000 letters against GMOs being included in the National Organic Program (NOP).

Why the fuss?  After all, GMO crops were developed to help us meet the demands our burgeoning population makes on our limited resources.  How can that be bad?

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are plants, animals and microorganisms which have been altered genetically.  Here’s how the National Orgtanic Standards Board puts it:  “Genetically engineered is defined as:  made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.   Genetic engineering includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro-and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes.”(1)

The benefits of genetic engineering in the agriculture sector is great, according to its proponents.  GMO crops have been hailed as a way to increase yields by protecting against pests, drought and disease.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has put forward the arguments for GMOs in agriculture, (such as increased yields and better resistance to pests and other stresses – which reduces dependence on chemicals needed for crop protection.   They also list the arguments against GMO crops. There is great debate about the pros and cons of this relatively new product.

But before looking at some of the reasons so many are opposed to genetic engineering,  let’s look at the issues pertaining to fiber crops only – and to cotton specifically:

Shortly after GMO cotton was introduced, GMO cotton producers, citing advances based on new GMO cotton  and supported by a series of Cotton Incorporated conferences on sustainable cotton,  portrayed conventional cotton as the new “sustainable” choice and organic cotton as an old and inadequate solution that is “as out-dated as last year’s fashions.”  (Editor’s note:  They also redefined the term “sustainable” to include “growing profitability.”)

GMO cotton was quickly adopted by cotton farmers, and millions of hectares of GMO modified cotton has been planted worldwide since its introduction in 1996.

Why did so many farmers pay for GMO seed – which cost more – and plant this new crop?  Bottom line: they were told that there was more money to be made from GMO cotton.    GMO cotton was supposed to have higher yields at the same time it was helping to reduce costs.  Cost savings in chemicals and manual labor was estimated at between 15 – 30%.   How did it reduce dependence on chemicals:

  • GMO cotton was engineered to reduce insect pests so farmers could reduce their chemical dependence on pesticides, and buy less of them.  The gene coding for Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) was inserted into the cotton.  Bt is a protein that acts as a natural toxin to the larvae of certain moths, butterflies, beetles and flies (including the dred bollworm) and is harmless to other forms of life.  When the larvae feed on the cotton they are killed by the Bt protein – thereby eliminating the need for a broad spectrum insecticide.
  • GMO cotton was designed to be resistant to herbicides so that weed killers could be liberally sprayed on crops without worrying about killing the cotton plants.  It was genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate (marketed as Roundup in the USA and manufactured by Monsanto – remember this fact) which is a broad-spectrum herbicide, and toxic to humans at concentrations far below the recommended agricultural use levels. (2)  Studies link glyphosate to spontaneous abortions, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Not only could they make more money, but  GMO cotton crops were also promoted as helping tackle world hunger and poverty, and helping small farmers. If you were a cotton farmer, how could you resist?  They didn’t:  Today 86% of all United States cotton, 68% of all Chinese cotton, and 76% of all Indian cotton (three of the major cotton growing countries) is now GMO cotton. (3)

Initial results seemed that all they promised was true – early studies in 2002/2003 reported that pesticide and herbicide use was down and yields were up (by as much as 80%)  for GMO cotton (4).  But these results were short lived.   Recent reports are full of data on GMO crops requiring ever more doses of chemical pesticides and herbicides to control pests which are mutating faster than even their worse case scenarios had envisioned,  and becoming resistant to the genetic modifications found in GMO cotton.  A study published by the Institute for Science in Society reports that Bt cotton fields rarely have studies done on what the crops do to the soil itself; they found that soil growing Bt cotton had significantly fewer beneficial soil enzymes in the soil (which makes nutrients available to plants) and total biomass was reduced 8.9%.  This, they conclude, could even lead to dead soils, unable to produce food.

What about the promise of reduced chemical dependence on pesticides and herbicides?

It was always thought that pests would eventually evolve and develop a resistance to Bt.  It wasn’t a question of whether resistance would happen, but how quickly it would evolve.  The Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in India published the (then currently held) opinion that, “with the current rate of increase in the area under Bt cotton, it is likely to take about 11 – 12 years for the pest to develop resistance to Bt cotton.  However, with implementation of proper strageties as suggested by CICR, it is possible to delay resistance by at least 30 – 40 years if not more.”  Worse case scenario was thought to be three years.

Yet in 2008 the University of Arizona published some of the first documented cases of bollworm resistance to Bt. Professor Bruce Tabashnik, a renowed insect researcher and the primary researcher of this study, said “our results contradict the worse-case scenarios of some experts under which resistance to Bt plants was expected in three years.  It is no surprise that, after a while, pests can develop biological strategies against insecticidal agents and become thereby insensitive:  as  a rule, even advantages that have been established in a plant by conventioinal breeding methods only have a limited time span of effectiveness.”

According to a 2008 study  by Friends of the Earth, independent studies have demonstrated not only that pesticide reduction claims are unfounded, but that GM crops have substantially increased pesticide use, particularly since 1999.  Dr. Charles Benbrook, a leading U.S. agricultural sicentist, conducted an “exhaustive analysis of USDA data on pesticide use in agriculture from 1996 to 2004.  His conclusion is that over this 9 year period, adoption of GM soy, corn and cotton crops has led to use of 122 million more pounds of pesticides than would have been used had GM crops not been introduced.”(4)

With regard to herbicides, GM cotton crops were engineered to have a resistance to glyphosate – the primary component in Monsanto’s patented week killer called Roundup.  Roundup is Montsanto’s biggest product, accounting for about 40% of their estimated 2002 revenue of $4.6 billion.  Monsanto sold its GMO seeds under the brand name, “Roundup Ready” because farmers could spray the herbicide directly onto their fields and not have to worry about killing their crop.  The popularity of Roundup Ready crops skyrocketed, and the use of Roundup also skyrocketed.  In the U.S. alone, glyphosate use jumped by a factor of 15 between 1994 and 2005, according to the Center for Food Safety.  That led to a host of  “superweeds” developing a resistance to Roundup.   Farmers were told that in order to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds they’d have to apply other chemicals, often in combination with higher rates of glyphosate.   In 2005, Monsanto recommended farmers use several additional herbicides with Roundup, including Prowl (pendimethalin), metolachlor, diuron and others.    In fact, recent data shows resistance to herbicides in general, and herbicides used in GMO crops in particular, has escalated at exponential rates, according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth study, cited above: ” When forced to admit that herbicide-tolerant crops increase overall pesticide use, biotech industry apologists quickly fall back on a second claim: the increasing use of glyphosate has reduced use of more toxic herbicides, and so is a benefit to the environment. While this was true in the first few years of Roundup Ready crops, a look at recent trends in herbicide use undermines this claim.”  For instance, 2,4-D is the second most heavily used herbicide on soybeans; it is a herbicide that formed part of the defoliant Agent Orange, and has been associated with health risks such as increased risk of  both cancer and birth defects – and use of 2,4-D more than doubled from 2002 to 2006.  Likewise, use of atrazine (which is linked to endocrine disruption, neuropathy, breast and prostate cancer and low sperm counts) rose by nearly 7 million lbs (a 12% increase).

And according to the Friends of the Earth study,  “It is important to understand two key facts about weed  resistance. First, resistance is defined as a weed’s ability to  survive more than the normal dose of a given herbicide rather than absolute immunity. Higher doses of the herbicide will often still kill the resistant weed, at least in the short term. The  second fact follows from the first. Weed resistance is not only the result of using an herbicide excessively, it often leads to still
greater use of that herbicide.”

And the promised yield increases?  Often, the answer depends on weather and growing conditions rather than types of seed planted.  Average cotton yields in the United States  were stagnant from 1996 (when GM cotton was introduced) to 2002 (when it made up 76% of cotton acerage);  there was a record yield in 2004 and 2005 but these increases were chiefly attributable to excellent weather conditions. (5)   In fact the question is really whether the yield for U.S. cotton is lower than it would have been had it not been Roundup Ready seed! (6)  Other parts of the world had similar or worse results.

Another facet of this discussion should include the fact that GMO seeds are expensive:  in India, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton seed was selling  for twice the price of non-GMO seeds.    GMO seeds cannot be saved and used for next season’s crop.   The high price for the seed led to farmers in India often having to take out loans from moneylenders who charged exorbitant interest rates.  In a poignant article in the New York Times,  Somini Sengupta published a discussion about the rash of suicides by Indian farmers – 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003 – and lays the blame on a combination of rural despair and American multinational companies peddling costly, genetically modified seeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth, GM crops do not fulfill their promise.

  1. GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty.
  2. GM crops increase pesticide use and foster the spread of resistant “superweeds”.
  3. GM crops do not yield more and often yield less than other crops. (7)
  4. GM crops benefit the biotech industry and some large growers, but not small farmers.

But why is the Organic Trade Association and GOTS so adamantly opposed to GMO crops?  Why are European countries like Germany banning the sale and planting of GMO crop?  And why did the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) release a position  paper calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods?  That’s next week’s post.

(1) Organic Materials Review Institute, http://www.omri.org/OMRI_GMO_policy.html

(2) Benachour N and Séralini G-E.. Glyphosate formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells Chem. Res. Toxicol. , 2009, 22 (1), pp 97–105

(3)  GMO Compass; http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/343.genetically_modified_cotton_global_area_under_cultivation.html

(4)  Qaim, Matin and Zilberman, David, “Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Croops in Dveloping Countries”, Science, 2.7.03

(4) “Who Benefits From GM Crops?”, Friends of the Earth,  issue 112 Agriculture and Food; January 2008, page 7.

(5) Meyer, L., S., MacDonald & L. Foreman, March 2007.  Cotton Backgrounder.  USDA Economic Research Service Outlook Report.

(6) Friends of the Earth, op cit.

(7) “Corn, Soy Yields Gain Little From Genetic Engineering”, Agence France Presse, April 14, 2009





Our toxic drinking water and the Clean Water Act of 1972

15 09 2009

TapC

I had a blog post about genetically modified organisims (GMOs) all ready to go,  but then I got  Sunday’s New York Times (September 13, 2009) with a front page story about rising incidences of  violations of the Clean Water Act in the U.S.:  more than half a million violations in the last five years alone.  I had been keeping track of reports of various types of pollution which come to my attention – every week on average, sometimes daily,  there is at least one article in my local paper which gets my blood boiling. Today’s article is about the widespread feminization of fish in American waters, a situation experts see as a wider problem of endocrine disruptive chemicals in our environment.  A few weeks ago I was tempted to write about the 60 Minutes segment that appeared on August 27, 2009.  As 60 Minutes says,  “this is a story about recycling – about how your best intentions to be green can be channeled into an underground sewer that flows from the United States and into the wasteland.”   You can read the story here about a place in China “where you can’t breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead”.

But it was today’s article that pushed me over the edge, because we have been working so hard  to remind  people why treating the water used in textile processing is critically important!  People still think using “organic cotton” or “organic anything” results in an organic fabric, when the difference is as much as that between crude oil and silky microfiber.  The textile industry remains the number 1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet, and water is a precious resource that we’re having to spread among more and more people.  We can’t afford to keep discharging effluent filled with toxic chemicals that may cause grave damage to us years down the line.  The Clean Water Act regulates 100 pollutants and the Safe Drinking Water Act limits 91 chemicals in our tap water – that’s  191 chemicals in all.  Small potatoes when the list of chemicals used routinely by industry tops 100,000 – but it’s better than nothing.  Now we find even that protection may be illusory.

The article in question is part of a series that the New York Times is running called “Toxic Waters”, which examines the worsening pollution in American waters, and the response by regulators.  Today’s article, “Clean Water Laws Neglected, at a Cost”, by Charles Duhigg, is based on the hundreds of thousands of water pollution records which the Times obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and the national database of violations they compiled from that information.   This database is more comprehensive than those maintained by any state or the E.P.A.  Click here to see the entire report online (where you can also find any violations which may have occurred in your community).

They found:

  • that an estimated 1 in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet federal health benchmarks.
  • that 40% of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once during the past year – violations that ranged from failing to maintain paperwork to allowing carcinogens into tap water.
  • that more than 23 million people received drinking water that violated a health-based standard.
  • that the number of violations is growing significantly.
  • and that only 3% of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments.

Critics say that the E.P.A. and the states have dropped the ball.  “Without oversight and enforcement, companies will use our lakes and rivers as dumping grounds – and that’s exactly what is apparently going on,” says Representative James L. Oberstar, from Minnesota.  But regulators say they’re overwhelmed, citing the increase in workloads and dwindling resources.

And there are those who say nothing will happen until there is some public outrage.  So please read the story and let’s have some outrage!

We need to take care of the scare resources we have.  We’re running out of water for everybody, and can’t afford to squander it.  Does anybody else get uneasy when you read something like this investor’s recommendation:   “A world that’s running out of clean, dependable supplies of water located where and when farmers need it makes irrigation one of the trends I’d like to invest in.”

water crisis

So when you read about the jeans factory in Lesotho which supplies denim to Levi’s and the Gap which is leaking untreated wastewater, dyed deep blue and polluted with chemicals, into the  local river – and when you read that most of the children living there have chest infections and skin irritations – don’t think it’s a world away and you’re safely protected by municipal water treatment facilities.  The New York Times findings give us scant reason to depend on our local water treatment facilities to protect us from these insults to our ecosystem.  That factory in Lesotho is spewing the effluent into your groundwater and it circulates in your water system.  Apparently that kind of egregious flaunting of the law is going on in West Virginia (and other states) too.

Note:  I live in Seattle, where the Seattle Times gets a feed from the New York Times; often a prominent story in the New York Times is displayed on the first page (or at least in the first section) of the  Seattle Times.  But this article was not carried by the Seattle Times in any section, let alone the front page.





Dyes – synthetic and “natural” part 2

8 09 2009

After last week’s discussion, I think you understand why it’s important to remember that whether one uses natural or synthetic dyes a major concern is not only what type of dye the dyer uses, but whether the dyer has water treatment in place!    That’s because neither natural dyes nor synthetic dyes (plus the associated mordants, etc., used in the dyeing process) should ever be returned to the local waterways.  Even benign chemicals like potato starch will kill fish and other aquatic life because they encourage the growth of algae which depletes all available oxygen, among other issues (known as BOD or Biological Oxygen Demand).  And some so called “natural” dyes are themselves toxic.  So be sure to buy fabric from a supplier who has water treatment in place.

The other part of the equation is how the dye is formulated, because if toxic chemicals are used in the formulation then most of these chemicals remain in the fabric.  If synthetic chemical dyestuffs contain chemicals which can poison us, then the use of natural dyes seems to many people to be a safer alternative.  Additionally, the  question of natural dyes remains a romantic notion and is aesthetically pleasing to many people.  So what are natural dyes?

picture-1

Natural dyes are dyes derived from animal or plant material without any synthetic chemical treatment. They are obtained from sources like flowers, leaves, insects, bark roots and even minerals. The most common natural dyes (all from plants except cochineal, from an insect) are:

  • Madder
  • Cutch
  • Cochineal
  • Weld
  • Indigo

Contrary to popular opinion, natural dyes are  neither necessarily safer nor more ecologically sound than synthetic dyes:

1)      “Natural” does not mean safe – they are not synonyms.  Mushrooms can be poisonous. Arsenic is perfectly “natural,” meaning occurring naturally in nature.  Some natural dyes are almost perfectly safe; others are quite toxic. Some synthetic dyes are safe even to eat; others are too toxic to bring into your home.  A few  natural dyes, such as logwood, which contains hematein and hematoxlyn, are themselves significantly poisonous – they’re toxic whether inhaled, absored through the skin or ingested.  Indigo is a skin, eye and respiratory system irritant.  Proper health and safety equipment must be supplied when working with any dyestuffs and workers need to be trained properly so they treat the dyes and mordants with respect.

2)       Just because dyes are natural does not mean that they are sustainably or organically raised or harvested.   Pesticides, herbicides, defoliants, etc., may have been used on the crop or perhaps the crop itself may be genetically modified or irrigated unsustainably.   Extraction of madder is often done by dissolving the roots in sulphuric acid.  Sodium hydroxide is needed to produce natural indigo dye.[1]

3)      The physical amount of natural dyestuff needed to color fabric is much greater than that required by synthetic dyestuffs.  The amounts needed vary by dyestuff used and fiber type, but as an example, we have summarized the usage from an article in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal[2]:

To dye 2 yards of upholstery weight fabric:

ounces

synthetic dye

0.7

freshly picked leaves

160 – 320

To dye 2 lbs of wool using:

ounces

low range

high range

Brazilwood chips

2

12

cutch

2

4

madder

6

16

To dye 5,000 yards of cotton fabric per month:

pounds

low range

high range

synthetic dyestuff

109

109

madder

938

2500

freshly picked leaves

25,000

50,000

4)      The quantity of dyestuff required is not a trivial consideration as the quantity of natural dyes that would be required to fulfill commercial dye demand would overwhelm  resources.  Some dyestuffs come from forest products, depleting valuable natural resources. Some can be wild harvested, but the population of creatures or plants required to fill human dye demand could not be supplied from current stocks of plants or animals.  (The third class of natural dyes, minerals, are most likely less objectionable in this regard.)  According to Ecotextile News (April 2009), it has been calculated that even if 2/3 of the world’s agricultural land was used to grow only natural dyes, there would scarcely be enough produced to dye the current volume of textiles.

5)    Natural dyes normally require much greater energy in the dyeing process as they usually require high temperature baths for longer periods of time than the optimized synthetic dyes; they also require a copious amount of the dyestuff itself as mentioned above,  and water.

6)      Natural dyes are less permanent, often requiring the use of mordants to affix the color molecule to the fiber.     Dye can sit on top of the fabric and look fine at first, but it easily washes out or fades to light very quickly.  The mordant creates a link between the dyestuff and the fiber – it remains in the fiber permanently, holding the dye.   That’s why cottons from India (where they had discovered mordants)  in the 18th century became so popular.  The mordant allows a dye to attain acceptable wash fastness. Some natural mordants exist, like pomegranate, salt and alum, but the more effective mordants are heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, et al), which have unsavory toxicity profiles (see last week’s post).  Each different metal used as a mordant produces a different range of colors for each dye.

7)      A primary consideration in textile manufacture is that the color possibilities for natural dyes are far more limited than synthetics.   The color of any natural dye may be easily copied by mixing synthetic dyes, but the reverse is not true:  many colors are not easily obtained with natural dyes. The non-reproduction of some shades is a drawback in commercial production. The variability of the color makes the use of natural dyes difficult in any manufacturing situation where replicability of color is important.

The use of natural dyes will almost certainly make the fabric more expensive, firstly, because large quantities of land and raw material are required to obtain the same depth of color that could be obtained from a synthetic dye – although the amount of energy needed to extract oil from the ground and convert it into useable chemicals for synthetic dyestuff is probably very high, although I have not seen studies regarding this.   Also, both growing and applying the dyes are time-consuming –  natural dyes take typically at least twice as long as synthetic dyes to get a result, and using natural dyes on vegetable fabric will be more costly still, as vegetable fibers are more resistant to taking up good strong colors than animal fibers are, and slower, longer treatments often give better results.  So the question becomes one of social responsibility also – is it responsible to use land to produce ultra low yield dye crops for the benefit of those wealthy enough to afford them?

And then there’s the problem of availability: with perhaps the exception of indigo, the most common dyeing crop, crops grown for are dye are almost non-existent. A manufacturer would have extreme difficulty making vast improvements to the environmental impacts of their dyeing processes because the supply, and the infrastructure to apply it, doesn’t exist on an industrial scale.

And yet …  many people appreciate the slight variations caused by natural human methods and feel that it adds to the beauty and interest of a fabric.  The art becomes more important than the science.   They believe that there is a richness and depth to some of these natural dyes that a synthetic just cannot match.   A company at the forefront of using vegetable dyes is Rubia Pigmenta Naturalia .   They produce a dyestuff made entirely from the madder plant, which is able to cover 40% of the color spectrum.  They have completed a long term research program to increase efficienty, yield and handling of natural colors on wool;  the dye is exceptionally stable, homogenous, colorfast and grown and processed to organic standards.  In 2008, Rubia Pigmenta Naturalia was approved for use in Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) fabrics.

Another source of information is Natural Dyes International, which is a nonprofit organization  to research  natural dyes,  share information and eduate the public about the history of these dyestuffs.

Researchers at the University of Leeds are investigating new technologies using both natural and synthetic materials that may revolutionize the dyeing of textiles.  The first, a process that creates colored polymers inside fibers via a catalytic dye process,  has the potential to reduce the dependence on petroleum as a starting point for synthetic dyes, be more cost effective and lower environmental impacts.  The second is a natural/synthetic hybrid using a gene modification.  As Ecotextile News says,  “Nature alone can’t meet the technical or volume demands of the modern consumer, and petroleum technology isn’t sustainable.”  (But a genetically modified dyestuff?  Yet another blog posting, due in a few weeks.)

Having weighted all the options and looked at costs and prices, we decided that a fully optimized GOTS compliant synthetic dyestuff, applied in a facility that follows the GOTS water treatment standards, is the best choice for O Ecotextiles fabrics at this point in time.  We are always hoping that the industry will develop better choices as time goes by, because as mentioned in the previous posts, the GOTS and Oeko Tex requirements do not prohibit the chemicals that are so egregious in terms of toxicity, they just establish threshhold limits for these chemicals.  Again, the Europeans are at the forefront, with their REACH legislation which mandates finding replacements for up to 2000 of the worst chemical offenders by a certain date.  We’ll all benefit from their strong and forward-thinking leadership.


[1]http://greencottonblog.com/2008/06/natural-dyes-are-they-an-alternative-to-synthetics/

[2] Chen and Burns, “Environmental Analysis of Textile Products”, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 2006; 24; 248.





Dyes – synthetic and “natural”

1 09 2009

hand_dyed_yarn_8i98

I thought we’d take a look at the dyeing process because so many people ask if we use “natural” dyes.  The answer is no, we don’t (although we’re not entirely objecting to natural dyes), and I hope the next two blogs will explain our position!  Let’s first take a look at what makes the dyes (and how they are applied) an area of concern.

Dyeing cloth is one of our oldest industries;  people used natural products found around them to change the color of the fibers used to make their cloth  – things like leaves, berries, or roots.   The first synthetic dye was created in 1856.  Today the use of natural dyes on a commercial scale has almost disappeared (except for a resurgence in the craft market) in favor of the newer synthetic dyes.  The production of synthetic chemical dyestuffs has become big business, but unfortunately the production and use of these synthetic dyes is one of the world’s most polluting industries.  Conventional synthetic dyes present health risks to those working with them and to those who wear them, as well as damaging the environment in a number of ways.  Why?

Dyes are compounds that can be dissolved in solvents, usually water.  The process of dyeing cloth uses a great quantity of water – according to the United States EPA, it takes an average of 5 – 35 gallons of water for every pound of finished fabric.  That translates into 125 – 875 gallons of water to dye 25 yards of fabric – enough to cover one sofa![1]

The dyes in solution are absorbed by the fibers.  The process of transferring the dye from the water to the fiber is called exhaustion or “fixation rate”, with 100% exhaustion meaning there is no dye left in the dyebath solution.   Most conventional dyes have an exhaustion rate of 80%, meaning the dyestuff which is not affixed to the fiber is flushed into our rivers with the spent process water.  Each year the global textile industry discharges 40,000 – 50,000 tons of dye into our rivers, and more than 200,000 tons of salt.[2]

One of the most pressing issues today is the lack of fresh drinking water, and as one of the most polluting industries, textiles – and especially the dyeing of textiles – is responsible for many instances of pollution making fresh water undrinkable.  In the worst cases, communities have to use polluted water to drink, wash clothes, bathe and irrigate crops and the toxins they’re exposed to can have catastrophic effects.  Even in those instances where water treatment is in place, toxic sludge is a byproduct of the process.  Often  sludge is sent to the landfill, but the toxicity of the sludge remains – containing, among others,  heavy metals, gypsum, malachite green (identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a priority chemical for carcinogenicity testing).

pink-sewage-300_tcm18-156872

The 40,000 to 50,000 tons of  synthetic dyestuffs expelled into our rivers are complex chemical formulations containing some things that are very toxic to us,  such as heavy metals (like lead, mercury, chromium, zinc, cobalt and copper), benzene and formaldehyde.  Many certifications, such as the new Global Organic Textile Standard and Oeko-Tex, restricts the kinds of chemicals allowed in certified products.  For example, GOTS restricts amine releasing AZO dyes and disperse dyes (must be <30 mg/kg); chromium, cobalt, copper, nickel, mercury, lead, antimony and arsenic are all restricted (rather than prohibited as many people believe).  So the dye formulation means a lot when you’re evaluating the eco credentials of a fabric – but almost never will you be able to find out what dye was used in any  particular fabric.                                                                                                              Copyright: Jucheng Hu

In addition to the formulation, there are requirements that dyestuffs must meet regarding oral toxicity, aquatic toxicity, biodegradability, eliminability and bi-accumulation in fatty tissues. The GOTS details are on their website: www.global-standard.org. Some dyestuff producers advertise that they have a dye group that meets these standards, such as Huntsman and Clariant.  So the formulation of dyes used makes a big difference – look for dyestuffs that have been certified by a third party, such as GOTS.

Remember that if the average exhaustion rate is 80% for most dyes (i.e., that 20% of the dyestuff is expelled with the wastewater) then that means that 80% of the dyestuff remains in the fabric!  In other words, those toxic chemicals remain in the fabrics you bring into your homes.  What do I mean by “toxic” – if you can stand it, I’ll give a short synopsis of the effects some of these chemicals found in many dyestuffs have on us:

  • Mercury:  Easily absorbed thru the skin or inhalation of dust which contains residues; effects the immune system, alters genetic and enzyme systems, damages the nervous system.  Particularly damaging to developing embryos, which are 5 to 10 times more sensitive than adults.
  • Lead: Easily absorbed thru the skin or inhalation of dust which contains residues. Impacts nervous system.   Even low levels of lead can reduce IQ, stunt growth and cause behavior problems.
  • Chromium:  Necessary for insulin activity and an essential trace metal; at toxic levels it causes squamous cell carcinoma of the lung.
  • Copper:  Fatigue, insomnia, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, migraine headaches, seizures. Mental disorders include depression, anxiety, mood swings, phobias, panic attacks and attention deficit disorders.
  • Cadmium:  Extremely toxic to humans because of its inhibition of various enzyme systems; primary target organ is the kidney; but also causes lung cancer ; also causes testicular damage and male sterility. Plants readily absorb cadmium from the soil so it easily enters food chain. Chronic exposure is associated with renal disease.
  • Sodium chloride (salt): not toxic in small doses (thankfully for me and my salt addiction), but the industry uses this in such high volumes it becomes an environmental hazard; an organochlorine (the class of organochlorines are very stable (i.e. does not break down into other compounds) and they bioaccumulate; 177 different organochlorines have been found in the  average population in Canada and the US.  Each person has a unique level at which this build-up becomes critical and triggers a wide range of health problems.)  Well known effects of chronic organochlorine contamination include hormonal disruption, infertility and lowered sperm counts, immune system suppression, learning disabilities, behavioral changes, and damage to the skin, liver and kidneys. Newborns, infants, children, childbearing women and the elderly are even more vulnerable to these health impacts.
  • Toluene:  affects the central nervous system; symptoms range from slight drowsiness, fatigue and headaches, to irritation of the respiratory tract,  mental confusion and incoordination; higher concentrations can result in unconsciousness and death.  Prolonged contact can cause dermatitis.  Teratogenic, embryotoxic.
  • Benzene:  Highly carcinogenic, linked to all types of leukemia but believed to cause the rarer forms (acute myelogenous leukemis (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL); effects the bone marrow and decrease of red blood cells, leading to anemia, excessive bleeding and/or immune system disfunction. Low levels cause rapid heart rate, dizziness, headaches, tremors, confusion.  Easily absorbed by skin

Better Thinking Ltd., a UK based organization, took a look at the dyes used in the industry and what they do to us and our environment.  They published their findings in a paper called “Dyeing for a Change” which explains the various synthetic dyes available and how they’re used.  (Click here to read about it.)

There are several classes of dyes:

  1. Direct dyes:  given this name because they color the fibers “directly” and eliminates the need for a mordant (the chemical fixing agent lots of dyes need).  Azo dyes are a type of direct dye made from a nitrogen compound; azo dyes are known to give off a range of carcinogenic particles and have been banned in many places, including the EU.  Effluent contains 5 – 20% of original dyestuff, plus salt and dye fixing agents.
  2. Vat dyes:  these dyes need a powerful reducing agent, such as alkali, to make them soluble.  Expensive and complicated to use, effluent contains 5 – 20% of residual dyestuffs, plus reducing agents, oxidizing agents, detergents and salts.
  3. Sulphur dyes:  90% of all sulphur dyes contain sodium sulphide, which endangers life and alters DNA, corrodes sewage systems, damages treatment works and leads to high pH and unpleasant odors.  Effluent contains 30 – 40% of the dyestuff plus alkalis and salt.
  4. Reactive dyes:  these dyes bond directly with the fibers, rather than merely remaining as an independent chemical entity within the fiber.  Applied with relatively cool water (saving energy) and

Of all the classes of synthetic dyes, a subset of  “reactive” dyes (called “low impact fiber reactive”) seems to be the best environmental choice.  As “Dyeing for a Change” explains:

Low-impact reactive dyes are usually defined as “low impact” because of the supposed lower fixation rate – however, these dyes have a fixation rate of at least 70%, which still leaves much room for improvement.  What does make them “low impact” and classified by the EU as eco-friendly:   they have been formulated to contain no heavy metals or other known toxic substances, and do not need mordants. The high cost of this dye becomes an environmental advantage, as it is cheaper to reclaim dye from the effluent rather than discharge it all and start from scratch. The water can also be recycled. The dye cycle is shorter than it is for other dye processes, meaning less water, salt and chemicals are needed. The entire process normally occurs at a pH of around 7.0, meaning no acids or alkalis need to be added to the water.

However, there are still disadvantages: like other environmentally damaging dyes, these dyes are made from synthetic petrochemicals. The process requires very high concentrations of salt (20%-80% of the weight of the goods dyed), alkali and water. Even if the unfixed dye is reclaimed, the effluent from this process can still contain high concentrations of salts, surfactants and defoamers, and is strongly alkaline. It’s also quite expensive, whereas conventional dye is cheap. This process’ effluent normally contains salt, alkali, detergent and between 20% to 50% of dye used. As reactive dyes currently make up 50% of world dye consumption, more knowledge on how to improve upon this method is needed.

Fortunately, research is being undertaken in this area, and a number of companies have produced products that improve on its impacts. It’s been found that, by pre-treating cotton with 120g of phosphate buffer per kg of fabric, no salt or alkali is needed in the dyeing process as the process can occur at a neutral pH. It also means the amount of water required can be halved and the whole dyeing process can be significantly reduced, presenting additional benefits in the form of cost savings. Compared to the other chemicals used to dye fabric the conventional way, this is a relatively low concentration, and its high exhaustion value means the effluent would only contain it in small  proportions, making it a greener alternative.  And British scientists have developed a way to use algae (called diatoms) to color the fabric – eliminating dyes entirely![3]

So you see why water treatment is critical – even if a dyestuff has a rather benign chemical formulation, the associated salts, defoamers and fixing agents must be dealt with.   We chose low impact fiber reactive GOTS approved dyestuffs for our fabrics – and we made sure that all wastewater is treated adequately before release.  But that’s not good enough – partly because there is still the question of the sludge created during the process and partly because we need to make sure that ALL process inputs have a benign chemical profile.

Tune in next week, when the subject will be “natural” dyes  – hopefully the discussion will clear up our thinking on synthetic vs. natural dyes.


[1]“Analysis of the Potential Benefits of Recycled Water Use in Dye Houses”, Water 3 Engineering, Inc., April 2005.

[2] Dyeing for a Change, page 4

[3] Madrigal, Alexis, “How Pond Scum Could Lead to Eco-Friendly Fabric and Paint”, Wired magazine, 10.11.07








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