What does “mercerized” cotton mean?

5 12 2012

fullsizeMercerization is a process applied to cellulosic  fibers  – typically cotton (or cotton-covered thread with a polyester core)  but hemp and linen can be mercerized also – to increase luster.  It is done after weaving (in the case of fabrics) or spinning (for yarns or threads).  But early on it was found that the process also had secondary benefits:  the mercerized fibers were able to absorb more water, and therefore absorb more dye, making the color of the dyed cloth brighter and deeper.  The difference is dramatic:  mercerization increases the absorption of dyestuffs by as much as 25%.[1]  unmercerized-101mercerized-101Not only is the color brighter, it also gives the cloth a better resistance to multiple washings,  keeping the colors bright and unchanged over time.   In addition to increasing luster and affinity to dyestuffs, the  treatment increases strength, smoothness, resistance to mildew, and also reduces lint.  So higher quality yarns and fabrics,  for example, are always mercerized.

The process goes back to the 1880’s.   John Mercer was granted a British Patent for his discovery that cotton and other fibers changed character when subjected to caustic soda (NaOh, also known as sodium hydroxide or lye), sulfuric acid, and/or other chemicals.   One of the changes was that caustic soda caused the fiber to swell, become round and straighten out.  But so what – these changes didn’t impart any luster to the fibers, so his patent was largely ignored.  Then in 1890 Horace Lowe found that by applying Mercer’s caustic soda process to cotton yarn or fabric under tension, the fabric gained a  high luster  as a result of the light reflection off the smooth, round surface created by the NaOH. It became an overnight success and revolutionized the cotton industry. The rest is history.[2]

Later testing proved that cotton fiber in its roving state (no twist in the yarns) would absorb more NaOH than fiber in a twisted state and as a result would absorb more water or dye.  Since fine, long stapled fiber gives the best absorption with the lowest twist, ( some twist is required for treating under tension to gain luster) it is usually the long fiber types of cotton (Sea Island, Egyptian, Pima) that are selected for yarn to be mercerized.   So mercerized cotton fabric starts with a better quality cotton fiber.

How is it done?

To get the desired luster and tensile strength,  cotton is held under specified tension for about ten minutes with an application of between 21%-23% caustic soda (NaOH) and wetting agents (used to facilitate the transfer of the NaOH into the fibers), at room temperature.  Then the fabric is neutralized in an acid bath.

Luster is a result of light reflection off a surface. The more glass like the surface, the better the luster. Yarn in its spun, treated state still has a very fine covering of tiny fiber ends (fuzz). This fuzz is removed by passing the yarn (or fabric) through a controlled heated atmosphere termed singeing (gas fired in the past, electric more currently) resulting in a cleaner surface.  (Luster is a result of light reflection off a surface. The more glass like the surface, the better the luster.)
You knew I’d have to look at the toxicity profile of sodium hydroxide, which is considered one of the building blocks of chemistry.  It’s a very powerful alkali.   It’s used in industry in a broad range of categories: chemical manufacturing; pulp and paper manufacturing; cleaning products such as drains, pipe lines and oven cleaners ; petroleum and natural gas; cellulose film;  and water treatment as well as textiles. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers sodium hydroxide to be generally safe, and recognizes it as not being found to pose unacceptable dietary risks, though it is generally only used on food contact surfaces rather than in foodstuffs.

The chemical is toxic to wildlife, and the EPA requires that effluent containing NaOH not be discharged into groundwater.  Because sodium hydroxide falls in the group of chemicals (salts) which are by far the most often used in textile processing, the sheer volume of NaOH used by the textile industry is important to recognize.  Usual salt concentrations in cotton mill wastewater can be 2,000 – 3,000 ppm[3], far in excess of Federal guidelines for in-stream salt concentrations of 230 ppm.  So treatment of effluent is very important, as prevention is the only reasonable alternative to solve the environmental problems associated with this hard-to-treat, high volume waste.  I have read that electrochemical cell treatment might be a substitute for using NaOH to mercerize.  This process occurs in a low voltage electrochemical cell that mercerizes, sours, and optionally bleaches without effluents and without the purchase of bulk caustic, neutralizing acids, or bleaches.

Pesticide residues in cotton fibers

19 05 2011

We’re often asked if there are traces of pesticides in conventionally grown natural fibers – because people make the assumption that if pesticides are used on the plants, then there must be residuals in the fibers.  And because the chemicals used on conventional cotton crops are among the most toxic known, such as aldicarb ( which  can kill a man by just one drop absorbed thru the skin) and endosulfan (thought to be the most important source of fatal poisoning among cotton farmers in West Africa), as well as a host of confirmed carcinogens[1],   that seems a reasonable cause for concern.

But that question misses the whole point, as we’ll explain.

According to the modern agricultural industry,  cotton agriculture uses integrated pest management (IPM) systems to promote cotton’s environmental stance (author’s note:  reduction of costs doesn’t hurt either).

As the result, the use of chemicals on cotton crops is down:  On average “only” 20 lbs. of pesticides are applied to an acre of cotton today – as opposed to about 40 lbs. in the past. 

IPM is a great advance on the part of agriculture to use biological controls.  But 20 lbs. per acre is still a lot of really bad chemicals being used.  So the Bremen Cotton Exchange,[2]  on behalf of the industry, has sponsored a series of tests which were carried out by the Hohehnstein Research Institute  according to Oeko-Tex 100 Standard (also known as Eco Tex).  They tested for 228 possible substances including:

  • Formaldehyde
  • PCP
  • pH Value
  • Heavy Metals
  • Defoliants

All the test series confirm that the treatment and use of pesticides in cotton production, according to their report,  “does not pose any hazard for the processor of the raw material and none at all for the end consumer.”  This is the industry’s position, based on the test results from their studies.  On the other hand, there are other studies that do find pesticide residues in cotton textiles –  of nine different organochlorine pesticides at levels of 0.5 to 2 mg/kg.[3]  So there seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether there are pesticide residues in the cotton fibers or finished cloth.

But there is not much difference of opinion in the fact that pesticide residues pollute our soils.    Many different studies have found pesticide residues which pollute agriculture soils in various parts of the world. [4]

“Pesticide Residues in Soil & Water from Four Areas of Mali”, From Journal of Agricultural, Food & Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, issue 1, 2007

And just recently,  Science News reported that children exposed in the womb to pesticides have lower IQs than do kids with virtually no exposure.  According to Science News:

“Three new studies began in the late 1990s and followed children through age 7. Pesticide exposures stem from farm work in more than 300 low-income Mexican-American families in California, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and their colleagues report. In two comparably sized New York City populations, exposures likely trace to bug spraying of homes or eating treated produce.”

Among the California families, the average IQ for the 20 percent of children with the highest prenatal organophosphate exposure was 7 points lower compared with the least-exposed group.

“There was an amazing degree of consistency in the findings across all three studies,” notes Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. And that’s concerning, he says, because a drop of seven IQ points “is a big deal. In fact, half of seven IQ points would be a big deal, especially when you see this across a population.”[5]

There is no dispute about the fact that cotton crops are grown using many millions of pounds of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.  And research shows that extensive and intensive use of synthetic fertilizers, soil additives, defoliants and other substances wreak terrible havoc on soil, water, air and many, many living things – such as in the study cited above.

So what is the point that’s being missed?  Because conventional agriculture – despite advances in IPM – uses so many chemicals which are bad for us, shouldn’t the crops be grown organically?  That cuts to the chase –  in organically raised crops, there would be no toxic residues in the fibers, nor would the chemicals be wreaking havoc on our soils, water and air.  So the question of whether there are pesticide residues in the fibers becomes moot.  And though the United States and other countries might have banned the use of some chemicals, such as DDT, they’re still in use in parts of the world.

We’ve often touted the benefits of organic agriculture, and this seems to be yet another.  We think organic farming is so important that we’ll spend some time on the subject in our next few posts – because there are some who say that organic farming is just not the answer.  Are we between a rock and a hard place?

[1] Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. (cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are known cancer-causing chemicals. All nine are classified by the U.S. EPA as Category I and II (dangerous chemicals).

[2] The purpose of the Bremen Cotton Exchange is “to maintain and promote the interests of all those connected with the cotton trade”.

[3] Zhang, X., Liao, Q and Zhang, Y, “Simultaneous determination of nine organochlorine pesticide residues in textile by high performance liquid chromatography, SEPU, 2007, 25(3), 380-383.

[4] http://www.scribd.com/doc/55465538/Insecticide-Residues-on-Cotton-Soils ALSO: Journal of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, Issue 1, 2007; “Pesticide Residues in Soil and Water from Four Cotton Growing Areas of Mali, West Africa   ALSO: Luchini, LC et al., “Monitoring of pesticide residues in a cotton crop soil”, Journal of Environmental Science and Health, January 2000, 35(1): 51-9  SEE ALSO: http://www.bashanfoundation.org/ivan/ivanmapping.pdf


24 06 2010

King Cotton.  The cotton textile industry has perhaps been studied as much as any industry in history, and the fiber itself is so important that it’s traded as a commodity.  “In high cotton” means to be wealthy, somebody can be out of his “cotton picking mind”, and  “to cotton” has even become a verb!  Today the range of uses for cotton has expanded so much (only 35% of the global harvest ends up in textiles) and there are so many issues surrounding cotton – from government subsidies, to GMO cotton to the intense chemical cultivation needed to produce conventional cotton – that I want to say at the outset that I just want to discuss  cotton without putting a value judgment on the plant, which after all is a pretty incredible natural gift to us!

Cotton is the world’s most popular natural fiber.    The fruit of the plant, better known as the cotton boll,  provides the fiber – the fiber of a thousand faces and almost as many uses, the fibers which the ancients called “white gold” because it was so valuable. 

Successful cultivation of cotton requires a long frost-free period, plenty of sunshine, and moderate rainfall, usually from 600 to 1200 mm (24 to 48 inches).  In general, these conditions are met within the seasonally dry tropics and subtropics in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, but  lots of the cotton grown today is cultivated in areas with less rainfall than cotton needs, so 70% of cotton crops are irrigated.

Today, cotton is cultivated in around 130 countries – but only six countries (China, Brazil, India, Pakistan, the USA and Uzbekistan) account for more than 80% of total production.  It is one of the world’s most widely produced crops and uses about 2.5% of the world’s arable land area.  Cotton cultivation is fundamental to the economies of many developing countries; according the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), around 20 million farms depend on cotton.

Cotton fibre grows on the seed of a variety of plants of the genus Gossypium, a member of the Hibiscus family. Of the four cotton species cultivated for fibre, the most important are :

  • G. hirsutum (also known as Upland cotton or Mexican cotton), which originated in Mexico and produces 90% of the world’s cotton.  Upland cotton is white, 2.1 – 3.2 cm long.
  • G. barbadense (also known as Pima cotton), of Peruvian origin, which accounts for 5% of the world’s cotton.  Pima cotton is longer than Upland, 3.5 – 4.1 cm, and more costly.  Special features of Pima cotton are its luster and extreme softness. Types of Pima cotton:
    • Egyptian cotton is 3.8 to 4.4 cm long, yellow brown in color, and grown only in Egypt.
    • Sea Island, longest of all the cotton fibers (3.5 to 6.4 cm) and the most expensive.  Yellow in color.  Grown in SC and GA coast.

All parts of the cotton plant are useful.  When seed cotton is ginned, more seed than fiber is produced.  For every kilogram of fibre produced, each cotton plant  produces 1.65 kg of seed.  The cottonseed is crushed in order to separate it into its three products – oil, meal and hulls. Cottonseed oil (about 20% of the harvested plant) is used primarily for shortening, cooking oil and salad dressing and in lots of snack foods. The meal and hulls that remain are very high quality proteins, and  are used either separately or in combination as livestock, poultry and fish feed and as fertilizer.  We do not think of cotton as a potential source of food, and for good reason. The seeds of the cotton plant are rife with a potent poison called gossypol that attacks both the heart and liver. Only the multi-chambered stomachs of cattle and other hooved animals can cope with this poison, relegating cottonseed to a role as animal feed.

The fiber, or lint, which is used in making cotton cloth is almost pure cellulose. Linters – the short fuzz on the seed – provide cellulose for making plastics, explosives and other products. Linters also are incorporated into high quality paper products and processed into batting for padding mattresses, furniture and automobile cushions.  As a refined product, cotton linters have medical, cosmetic and other uses.

Cotton planting, harvesting and spinning can be done in a highly mechanized way – or it can be done entirely by hand.  Only about 30% of the world’s cotton production is harvested by machines.  Conventional cotton stripping machines use rollers equipped with alternating bats and brushes to knock the open bolls from the plants into a conveyor.

A second kind of stripper harvester uses a broadcast attachment that looks similar to a grain header on a combine. All harvesting systems use air to convey and elevate the seed cotton into a storage bin referred to as a basket. Once the basket is full, the stored seed cotton is dumped into a boll buggy, trailer or module builder.

Today, nearly all cotton is stored in “modules”, which look like giant loaves of bread. Modules allow the cotton to be stored without loosing yield or quality prior to ginning. Specially designed trucks pick up modules of seed cotton from the field and move them to the gin.

Modern gins place modules in front of machines called module feeders. Some module feeders have stationary heads, in which case, giant conveyors move the modules into the module feeder.  The module feeders literally break the modules apart and “feed” the seed cotton into the gin. Once in the cotton gin, the seed cotton moves through dryers and through cleaning machines that remove the gin waste such as burs, dirt, stems and leaf material from the cotton. Then it goes to the gin stand where circular saws with small, sharp teeth pluck the fiber from the seed.

From the gin, fiber and seed go different ways. The ginned fiber, now called lint, is pressed together and made into dense bales weighting about 500 pounds.  Producers usually sell their cotton to a local buyer or merchant who, in turn, sells it to a textile mill either in the United States or a foreign country.

The seed usually is sold by the producer to the gin. The ginner either sells the seed for feed or to an oil mill where the linters (a byproduct of the oil mill – don’t confuse this with the ginned fiber, called lint) are removed in an operation very much like ginning. Linters are baled and sold to the paper, batting and plastics industries, while the seed is processed into cottonseed oil, meal and hulls.

At the textile mill, the bales are opened by machines, and the lint is mixed and cleaned further by blowing and beating. The short lint that comes out usually is separated and sold for use in other industries. The best part of the lint consists of fibers about 1 inch to 1 ¾ inches long.

The mixed and fluffed-up cotton goes into a carding machine which cleans the fibers some more and makes them lie side by side. The combing action of the carding machine finishes the job of cleaning and straightening the fibers, and makes them into a soft, untwisted rope called a sliver (pronounced sly-ver).

On modern spinning frames, yarn is made directly from the sliver. The spinning devices take fibers from the sliver and rotate it up to 2,500 revolutions in a second twist that makes fibers into a yarn for weaving or knitting into fabrics.

After all of that,  the yarn is ready to be woven into fabric.

Cotton, as an intensely studied commodity, has a variety of grades, usually dependent on the length of the cotton staple fibers.  Cotton quality is judged based on the grade, color, length of the fibers and the character:

  • Grade: determined by the major or minor brightness of the fibers, by the more or less white color and the presence of particles of the leaf or other extraneous substances.
  • Color: color can differ greatly, from white to grey, but also reddish, tawny, chamois colored varieties.
  • Length: the most important attribute, and this category is divided into two parts:
    • Long fiber (long staple) measures more than 28 mm
    • Short fiber (short staple) does not reach the length of 18 mm; an intermediate category of 18 – 28 mm (such as the US Uplands cotton) constitutes 60% or more of world production
  • Character or micronaire: partly connected with origin, variety and maturity but a cotton of good character is that whose fibers are the most strong and robust (so as to resist traction and breakage); homogenous and uniform (to produce few losses in working) and have a complete physical-chemical constitution (so as to give the cotton mass notable solidity and compactness, smoothness and silkiness).  Cotton fiber fineness is defined as mass per unit of length,  the term millitex (for milligram per kilometer) is used; and upland cottons have millitex values between 150 and 200.  Ideal maturity ratios are around 0.8

The traditional method of establishing cotton quality is by visual hand classing. Professional classers hand class bale by bale and visually define color, grade, leaf content, preparation, maturity, and incidence of defects. In other words, the overall visual characteristics of the cotton is sampled. In addition, the classers randomly pull the staple to evaluate the length of the fibers.

A certain degree of subjectivity is involved in this method of classifying cotton. Samples are judged against grade boxes that are produced to establish standards. The Universal Standards, established each year by the USDA, define standards: Good Middling, Strict Middling, Middling, Strict Low Middling, Low Middling, Strict Good Ordinary, Good Ordinary. Other terms that are used to describe variations in color include: Light Spot, Spotted, Tinged, Grey, Dull, etc. Inferior cotton is denominated as Below Grade. Specific machines are then used randomly, as a complement, to measure micronaire and strength (Pressley). Cotton negotiated under this methodology is referred to as ‘sold on description’.

The more modern method of ascertaining quality is with a High Velocity Instrument (HVI). With these machines more than 1000 samples can be tested per day. These machines are generally not as accurate as hand classing with respect to color, grade and leaf, however, the results are more objective and very effective for measuring, staple, strength, uniformity, short fiber content and elongation which have gained much more importance. These machines do not have the capability of measuring the overall preparation of the cotton. Nonetheless, the trend is for textile mills to require HVI results when purchasing cotton.


Cotton fabrics are very comfortable to wear due to their soft hand, lovely drape and other characteristics.  They are easy to handle and sew.

Cotton has excellent absorbing capabilities.  “Absorbent” cotton will retain 24-27 times its own weight in water and is stronger  wet than dry. This fiber absorbs and releases perspiration quickly, thus allowing the fabric to “breathe”.

Cotton can stand high temperatures and takes dyes and printing inks easily.

Cotton is washable but does shrink if it has not been treated with a shrink resistant finish.  Boiling and sterilizing temperatures can also be used on cotton without disintegration.  Colored cotton garments retain their color longer if they are washed in warm or cool water. Cotton fabrics can be bleached but too much bleaching could weaken the fibers.  Sunlight  harms cotton by causing it to oxidize and turn yellow.

Cotton wrinkles very easily, but can be ironed at relatively high temperatures. However, there are many cotton garments on the market that have been treated with wrinkle resistant finishes or blended with polyester to give it wash and wear properties..

Mercerized cotton is treated to permanently straighten the cotton fibers which then becomes a smooth, rod-like fiber that is uniform in appearance with a high luster.

Cotton and China

24 03 2010

Chris Wood – an independent journalist living on Vancouver Island, Canada,  wrote an article in Miller-McCune about China’s cotton problem.   Most of the information here is taken from his article.  You can read the complete article here.

Clients often ask us where our fabrics and/or fibers come from because, they tell us,  they don’t want to buy something if it was made in China because they don’t want to support China’s horrible environmental reputation.

Well, first we’d like to say that China is a big place, and to say anything pertains to all of China is really stretching it.  And our experience has been quite the opposite – our contacts in China are among the most caring and environmentally sensitive, and now there’s evidence that the Chinese government is making efforts to support sustainability in this area also.  China’s Development Research Center (DRC) Deputy Director Long Guoqiang has said that  “sustainable trade means economic, social and environmental sustainabilities. In the past, China [judged] the former two more important than the latter one. In recent years the environmental target has become more and more important. We think the three targets are equally important to China at this stage.”

China,  cotton, and the United States  is a complicated threesome.  Not only does China provide the U.S.  more than $30 billion worth of textiles and clothing, China is the #1 foreign customer for American-grown cotton. And to further complicate this relationship, cotton is one of the world’s major agricultural commodities:  if we take into consideration all stages of  the cotton life cycle, cotton is the economic support for one-sixth of humanity.  It’s also implicated in a wide array of environmental issues, from falling aquifer levels in regions growing irrigated cotton to fertilizer runoff that nourishes fish-killing algae blooms in lakes and oceans and to pesticide contamination of groundwater.

In China, it costs money to treat textile effluent just as it does in other parts of the world.  It’s not costless.   The search for lower prices – an effort to stay profitable –  has led to cost cutting.   The Miller McCune story published the claim that almost one third of the dye effluent in China is discharged without any attempt to treat it – in some areas, the water is dangerously toxic to the touch.   This is one of the major factors in the unavailability of clean drinking water for large sections of Chinese society.  One official in China said that in 2006, the cumulative cost of environmental damage and pollution-related health care was effectively offsetting the country 10% annual economic growth.

And the Chinese government is not blind to this environmental degredation, nor to the scale of the pollution drag on the Chinese economy.  So the State Council directed its research arm, the Development Research Center (DRC), to seek advice on bringing the trade vital to China’s prosperity into balance with its ecological resources.  The DRC, in turn, commissioned a Canadian research center to oversee an international network of experts, to look into these problems and to help them envision a sustainable trade strategy.  The Chinese government was looking for pragmatic solutions.

But what it all boils down to is that despite China’s authoritarian government (which some say can get things done quickly once they’ve identified the path),  despite its efforts to bring the industries which are the engine for its prosperity into ecological balance, and despite the government’s efforts to identify the textile industry’s full-spectrum impact, cradle to grave, the bald truth is this:   textile products and clothing in particular are horribly undervalued.   The prices consumers are prepared to pay – or more accurately, the prices the high volume brands are willing to pay for product inputs – encourage producers to do simply what they can afford, rather than what is right.   The global cotton-textile value chain is “buyer driven”, dominated by a relatively small number of increasingly global participants.  In the U.S. market just two large discount chains – Wal-Mart and Kmart – account for 1/4 of all the clothing sold.  I wince every time I see Old Navy’s advertisements with their unbelieveably low prices for clothing – because I know what those prices mean to me in the long run.   “[I]f the true environmental costs can be included in the price of products and services,” the researchers argued, “the pricing system can give market signals that ensure the efficient allocation of environmental resource use.”

Taxes on such things as wastewater discharge, on cotton clothing to fund recycling, and tax incentives to motivate adoption of wastewater recycling have all be suggested.  But there is only so much the government can do.  Local authorities can’t afford for local businesses to close down –  and so we have a problem the the world can’t afford to ignore.

Another significant impediment, according to Chris Wood’s article,  to greater sustainability for China’s cotton trade lies in the difference between  “cotton production in the nominally communist state and its production in supposedly capitalist America. While U.S. production is dominated by heavily mechanized, industrial-scale farms, and China’s cotton is overwhelmingly grown on much smaller parcels tended by hand, it’s the large American cotton farms that are arguably the more socialized. China’s millions of small cotton farmers are highly exposed to the vagaries of the market; the United States subsidizes its growers by amounts that in some years exceed the harvested value of their crops. Such subsidies in the U.S. and countries in Europe and elsewhere (including China itself) depress the price of globally traded cotton, leaving small producers with little profit to invest in better growing techniques.”

But turn the American subsidies on it’s head, and look at the situation from another angle:  American taxpayers’ willingness to pick up much of the cost of its water- and chemical-intensive cotton crop keeps the price of U.S. cotton  irresistibly low to Chinese buyer, encouraging more of the same.  And American taxpayers will pay the piper when the water runs dry and the health concerns blossom into realities.

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

Cotton is a good way to buy oil.

21 07 2009

Provocative title, isn’t it?  But I didn’t say it, the statement comes from Jim Rogers, one of the world’s most successful investors and co-founder of the Quantum Fund (with George Soros) from which he retired in 1980.  Since then he has been a college professor, world traveler, author, economic commentator and creator of the Rogers International Commodities Index.  And now, Jim Rogers says he’s investing in agriculture.

Jim Rogers is looking at cotton as a commodity (and an investment strategy), based on the fact that almost everything has some dependence on energy prices, based on  the embodied energy of the product.  He bases his decision on the fact that so many textiles today are made from synthetics – which come from oil.  Since the price of oil is going up (and will likely continue to go up) the price of synthetics is also going up.  So textile makers are reverting to natural fibers.  Cotton is the most popular natural fiber in the world, and the cotton – oil connection is both direct (through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides), and indirect  (land formerly used to grow cotton can be shifted to other production to feed ethanol demand).  As Jim Rogers says,  “I hadn’t thought of this cotton-oil connection before, and it’s drawing these connections before others do that makes a great investor.”

If we are going to “reduce our dependence on foreign oil” (as the government likes to put it), shouldn’t we be looking at agriculture?  Dr. Albert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at Colorado University, Boulder, has said that the definition of “modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food”.

I checked the web – and agriculture is really an energy hog.  According to the website Food and Water Watch:

  • 20% of the fossil fuel used in the US goes toward food production.
  • This inefficient system spends 10,551 quadrillion joules of energy each year – about the same as used by all of France.
  • The US EPA reported that US agriculture is responsible for the same amount of CO2 emissions per year as 141,000,000 cars.  Emissions DOUBLE when electricity usage is included.

Kenneth Watt, on the very first Earth Day in 1970, said that our very existence is dependent on the massive import of energy into industrial agriculture from petroleum, natural gas and coal – and this massive energy use creates a “fossil fuel subsidy”:  that means the use of petroleum has enabled fewer farmers to produce much more food on less land, so the population can grow.

Petroleum-based agriculture has reduced the proportion of the US population engaged in agriculture from about 50% about 75 years ago to less than 2% today.  In other words, the average American farmer feeds lots of people, as well as having enough left over to ship abroad. Petroleum also lets Floridians eat salmon from Alaska, and Alaskans enjoy orange juice from Florida. Between 1950 and 1970, the last 11 million horses were taken out of American agriculture and replaced by tractors powered by crude oil. Since it takes very roughly four times the acreage to support one horse as a person, this means we have been able to add 44 million people to the American population [in those twenty years] for that one cause alone, because of a fossil fuel subsidy.

According to Kenneth Watt, “mankind is embarked on an absolutely immense gamble. We are letting the population build up and up and up, by increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth for people, using a crude-oil energy subsidy, on the assumption that there’s no inherent danger in this because when the need arises we’ll be able to get ultimate sources of energy.”

But what happens if we don’t have alternate sources of energy,  when the oil crunch appears?  As oil production declines, prices will rise – especially commodities – and most especially food.

So how can organic agriculture help us with this dire picture.  You’ll be surprised!  Check in next week.