Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Environmental Impact of Cotton Production: A Case for Organic Cotton and Organic Hemp

English: Organic cotton yarn.
Organic cotton yarn (Wikipedia)
by Andii Lindsay

Aside from things we grow to feed ourselves, one of our most intensively farmed crops is the humble cotton plant, producing around 25 million tonnes of cotton every single year.

Production of cotton is limited to a few big producers, with China, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and the USA accounting for over 80% of the total production.

China alone produces around 4.3 million tonnes of cotton each year, and has the highest number of cotton growers in the world.

Despite this high native production, China does not produce enough cotton to be self-sufficient, and still has to import around 418 thousand tonnes each year to meet the demand of the fashion and fabric industries in the country.

Across the globe, cotton plantations occupy over 2.5% of the arable land area available, making this one of the most widely grown crops in the world.

But what are the environmental impacts of growing cotton, and how can we make sure our fashion choices are not destroying our planet?

The Environmental Impacts


The use of pesticides in cotton farming has, over the years, had a major impact on the environment as well as the health of the people who work on the farms.

Cotton producers worldwide use almost £1.8 billion of pest control chemicals every year, which accounts for 10% of the world's pesticides and around 25% of the world's insecticides.

The types of pesticides used in cotton farming are among the most dangerous in the world, and many are broad spectrum organophosphates which were originally developed as toxic nerve agents during the Second World War.

Many of the chemicals in use in developing countries today have been classified as 'highly hazardous' and banned from use in the West.

Asia in particular saw a spike in the use of dangerous pesticides with the introduction of modified crop varieties, mainly because these fast growing, high yield plants were more susceptible to pests than traditional cultivars.

As pests developed a resistance to the chemicals used, so the farmers increased the use of them, until a peak in the late 1990's when the use of insecticides in some Asian countries counted for around 40% of the production costs of cotton.

The dangers of pesticides are not purely limited to the immediate environment. Because rain causes chemicals to run off from the crop fields and enter the water system, numerous complications can arise.

These can include damage to the local and extended eco system, limited local biodiversity, damage to wildlife in rivers and neighbouring biomes and even contamination of meat and milk products from animals that reside nearby.

Thankfully worldwide education programmes and alternative strategies are slowly making their way into cotton production systems.

Farmers can see the benefits of reducing pesticide use, if only for the increase in profits available from their harvests, and through a programme delivered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, awareness of other methods of pest control is being raised worldwide.


As well as dangerous pesticides, many cotton farmers use powerful herbicides and defoliants to speed up and simplify the harvesting process. Defoliants strip leaves from the plants, leaving just the cotton bud and stem, reducing the amount of leaf litter that gets mixed in with the raw cotton.

As well as this, herbicides and fungicides may be used during the growing process to protect the cotton plant from weeds and fungi, adding to the chemical soup that cotton production is responsible for.


It takes around 150g of synthetic fertilisers to grow just 500g of raw cotton. To put this in perspective, it takes around 500g of raw cotton to make one t-shirt, so you can imagine the amount of synthetic fertiliser that is entering the environment as a result of the cotton industry.

The majority of fertilisers used in cotton production worldwide are nitrogenous synthetic fertilisers, which are considered to be the most detrimental in terms of environmental impact.

These fertilisers leach from the cotton fields and run off into water systems, where they can cause problems such as contamination of river environments and harmful algal blooms.

As well as the water system, nitrogen based fertilisers are responsible for a much more concerning impact on the global ecosystem. These synthetic fertilisers are accountable for major increases in the worlds N2O emissions, a greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent than CO2.

With the use of these fertilisers predicted to increase around 2.5 times in the next 20 - 30 years, they paint a pretty bleak picture for mitigation of climate change in the future.


The damage does not end there. Cotton growing is responsible for a whole raft of further environmental issues, not least related to the diversion of water supplies to water cotton crops in developing countries.

In central and southern Asia, entire rivers were diverted to supply water to cotton crops, leading to the drying up of the Aral Sea, which once was one of the largest inland bodies of water in the world.

Other impacts

The finishing process of cotton is also incredibly environmentally damaging.

The process of spinning and weaving causes large amounts of solid waste as well as using a great deal of energy, and once the cotton is spun into a fabric, it is treated with chemicals such as pentachlorophenol to prevent rot whilst the fabric is stored.

When the material is dyed, the majority of processes will first bleach the cotton to increase the depth of colour achievable. In developing countries this is often done using a chlorine based bleach, which is incredibly harmful to the environment.

The use of chlorine has been stopped in most western countries, where they use hydrogen peroxide to bleach the fabrics instead. Although less polluting, hydrogen peroxide will only work as a bleach at temperatures of 60 degrees or above, making this process much more energy intensive.

Dyes were once made from plant products, but with the world's arable land at a premium, it is no longer possible to grow enough plants, however, there are companies producting natural plant based dyes on an industrial scale including Couleurs de Plantes in France but for the most part the clothing industry now uses petrochemicals to produce the colours they need for their cotton products.

After colouring the material, it must be thoroughly washed, resulting in a coloured, highly polluted effluent discharge.

Worldwide around 40 - 50,000 tonnes of chemical dyes go into rivers, and although western countries are taking steps to mitigate the impact of this by product, the huge textile mills in developing countries are not in an economic position to make any major changes.

The alternative: Organic Cotton & Hemp

Organic cotton is produced in completely different ways, giving consumers a real choice over how they would like their clothes to be made. Some of the benefits of organic cotton include:

  • Lower carbon footprint due to manual farming practices
  • No genetically modified plants used
  • Grown using natural fertilisers, natural pest control methods and no defoliants
  • Removal of contaminants like lead, formaldehyde, heavy metals, lead and amines from the production process, and strict testing to ensure none are present in the final products
  • Safer working environments for cotton farmers and their families
  • More profitable farming through reduced use of expensive chemicals
  • Eco friendly processing and finishing that reduces toxic pollutants entering the eco system

Organic cotton is made to be kind to the environment and to your skin, so if you suffer with allergies or eczema, you will positively benefit from the lack of chemicals and irritants in organic cotton.

Even if you do not have sensitive skin, organic cotton feels much nicer against your skin and by choosing to purchase organic, you are showing your support for more environmentally conscious, ethical practices in the industry.

- Hemp is a wonder fibre it is the longest and strongest plant fiber and will row with very little water (about 1/20th the amount of water used to grow and process cotton.) Additionally, it is very resilient and will grow without the use of pesticides and herbicides
- Hemp has four times the strength of cotton so it won't weaken when washed
- Hemp has been in use for nearly 2000 years (since 770 AD) and used for a variety of products including sails, rope, paper, books and clothing
- Hemp is anti-fungal and filters UV light, so is good for your skin
- Hemp is also a porous fibre which allows it to breathe. The result is you are cool in the summer and warmer in cool weather
- Hemp is more water resistant than cotton and keeps your body dry as it wicks away moisture quickly
- Hemp will also retain colour better than any other fibre and resist fading

When we consider the huge benefits of switching to organic cotton and hemp as a staple for textile and clothing needs it is worth considering seeking out and supporting companies and manufacturers who are endeavouring to produce items that are good for the environment and thus good for the whole of mankind and their future.

Cock & Bull Menswear is a sustainable UK based menswear manufacturer and retailer producing desirable, wearable wardrobe staples that can be depended upon season after season.

The focus is on "beautiful garments to be cherished rather than mass consumption" and are produced in limited editions.

Inspired by contemporary culture, politics and art with a strong British flavour the garments are produced in the UK and capture the spirit, timelessness, quality and durability of old world charm while also encompassing a modern aspect.

Visit Cock & Bull Menswear to view their range of organic cotton underwear, tweed flat caps, organic cotton shirts and more.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rosia Montana: A Paradise in Jeopardy

by David Alan Paty

English: Roşia Montană, in the Judeţul Alba, R...
Roşia Montană, in the Judeţul Alba, Romania (Wikipedia)
In the heart of Transylvania, in the Apuseni Mountains of western Romania, an idyllic village sits in a valley of unparalleled beauty and quiet defiance.

In this village, every stone, every trail under a blossoming apple tree speaks of the joy of life where people share in nature's seasonal abundance; it is a paradise on earth.

But there is also a shadow lurking; a dark force that threatens to alter and destroy two-thousand years of history and an environment that has stood for millenniums.

This dark force has many names; ignorance, greed, self-absorption and fear but its goal is always the same - to blind people to the truth, that happiness can be found only in selfless service to one another.

For most of its two-thousand year history, Rosia Montana has been a village where families lived in relative harmony with the earth.

Mining for gold in miles of underground tunnels and shafts, they also took wood from the abundant forests and harvested fields of chicory and garlic, red beets and rhubarb, without destroying its ability to regenerate and renew.

They understood that the land offered them life and it was their duty to protect the natural resources of the area not only for their generation but for all the generations that would follow. The land was their heritage, it defined them as a people. Rosia Montana was who they were.

But the passing centuries brought more advanced technology; men were able to extract tiny amounts of gold, invisible to the eye, from the soil. Large, international companies began to scour the earth for gold hiding in distant lands.

Eventually, they discovered Romania's hidden treasure in the place where gold had always been; Rosia Montana.

At first, the people of Rosia Montana said "No! Go away! Go back to your homes across the sea!" but the men from beyond the ocean knew what would make the people forget their traditions, their culture and their heritage.

They showed the people bags of money and told them to forget the land that was in their blood, the land of their fathers and grandfathers.

Many people listened to the company's lies and took the money to spend on cars and big-screen TVs and a bigger house.They forgot their community and watched as the birthplace of their people was destroyed house by house, family by family.

They sacrificed their community, their neighbors, their friends and bowed down to the greed of a foreign company lusting to take the gold from the earth, gold that belonged to the land and to all of Romania.

Rosia Montana reminds people of their heritage, not only for those who once called Rosia Montana home, not only for all Romanians but for the whole world; for Rosia Montana represents the best of the human spirit.

It's a flame that speaks of living in harmony with nature and with each other; a flame of yearning that burns in all of our hearts, a flame that should never be extinguished.

The Rosia Montana Cultural Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the cultural and natural patrimony of Rosia Montana, Romania.

Threatened with the largest open pit gold mining operation in Europe, Rosia Montana needs your support in ending government corruption and the gold corporation's misinformation. Please visit us at

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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Innovation Prizes for Environment and Development

Flickr - DFID - UK Department for Internationa...
Border crossing (Wikipedia)

From the 18th century Longitude Prize to help British navigators, to the 20th century Schneider Trophy for aviation, which inspired the Spitfire, prize competitions have been used as a mechanism to spur innovation for centuries. 

DFID now hopes to use this successful model to drive innovation in international development. Innovation Prizes offer a reward (often finance, but can also include other technical assistance) to whoever can first, or most effectively, meet a defined challenge. 

They act as an incentive for meeting a specific
challenge, rather than an award for past achievements.

By offering prizes in international development, the new DFID programme aims to incentivise R&D in the development and deployment of solutions for developing countries, particularly focusing on low carbon energy; water and sanitation; and climate change adaptation.

This will help support environmental technologies and business models that will benefit the poor, while also helping to build developing country capacity to innovate by actively encouraging participants from developing countries.

‘Innovation Prizes for Environment and Development (IP4ED)’

Adding prizes to the portfolio of tools DFID uses to stimulate innovation has the potential to reach large numbers of poor beneficiaries and bring in new socially orientated innovators.

The scale and urgency of development challenges means a step-change is required - ‘business as usual’ is insufficient to tackle poverty in the face of a rapidly changing world.

Step-changes are often driven by innovation, which can result in significant improvements in the impact, outcomes, efficiency, effectiveness, quality and affordability of the basic services used by poor people.

However, innovation efforts that target the problems of the poorest and most vulnerable are rare because they are not a priority for private finance.

The new five year DFID programme aims to leverage/crowd-in new investment into the development and deployment of affordable and accessible technologies for the poor.

It will administer up to five individual innovation prizes, to be determined following in-depth research and consultation with the development community, including end-users themselves. DFID will soon be searching for a Service Provider to establish and manage the new programme.

If you are interested in bidding for this tender, please register your interest through DFIDs supplier portal and you will be notified as soon as the tender is launched. UKCDS.

Members: DFID
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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Neonicotinoid Ban Eases the Stress on Bees

A European honey bee (Apis mellifera) extracts...
A European honey bee (Wikipedia)
by Manu Saunders, Charles Sturt University

News that the European Union (EU) has restricted the use of neonicotinoid insecticides was welcomed by scientists, farmers, beekeepers and politicians around the world.

But the limitations of the restriction, as well as the disagreement within the EU, highlight the confusion over exactly what ecological impacts these chemicals have.

Only 15 out of the 27 EU states voted for restricting neonicotinoids, a restriction which will initially only be for two years.

It is also not a complete “ban” - it applies to flowering crops that are attractive to bees and other pollinators, but doesn’t apply to winter cereals or “unattractive” crops.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are chemically similar to nicotine and they act as a nerve agent on insects. They were developed for commercial use in the 1990s, and are now some of the most-used chemicals in the world.

They can be applied to grown plants or trees, or to seeds. The chemical is then taken up by the growing plant and becomes part of its structure (its roots, leaves, nectar or pollen), so an insect that nibbles on any part of the plant will get a dose of neonicotinoid in its meal.

These doses may not kill the insect immediately, but over time, repeated ingestion of the chemical will build up in the insect’s system and affect its health, behaviour and reproductive success.

This is not so good for non-target insects like pollinators, which are crucial for pollinating our food crops, as well as for overall ecosystem function.

Will the European restrictions make a difference?

Yes. Despite the disagreement, the EU’s moratorium is an important step in the right direction.

It raises much-needed awareness of the ecological impacts of these chemicals, and it will provide some respite for wild pollinators - all those “invisible” insects that are busily keeping plants reproducing in forests, gardens and crop fields.

However, the fact that the ban only applies to some crops means that it will be very difficult to confirm that pollinators are no longer being exposed to the chemical.

How do neonicotinoids affect pollinators?

There have been few studies conducted under natural conditions, which is understandable. Neonicotinoids are almost ubiquitous in the environment; larger insects (like bees) can travel 3-4km to forage; and it is pretty difficult to track and control the movements of most insects!

It would be nearly impossible to ensure that the “control” insect population was not being exposed to insecticides during a field experiment.

However, research combining laboratory and field methods have provided conclusive evidence against various neonicotinoids.

Honeybees exposed to thiamethoxam were more likely to get lost while foraging and not arrive home - this reduces the colony’s food stores and the survival potential of the hive.

Honeybees dosed with imidacloprid also did less “waggle dancing” in the hive, which is how bees communicate the location of food sources to the colony - less dancing means less food collected.

Bumble bee colonies exposed to imidacloprid also struggled - treated colonies showed reduced growth rates and queen production was 85% less than in untreated colonies.

What’s happening in Australia?

Neonicotinoids are widely-used in Australia, and as yet there is no mention of restrictions on their use.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is currently undertaking a review into these insecticides and the potential risks to honey bee health. They will release a draft consultation report later this year containing their recommendations.

So far, the focus of this review appears to be on honey bees. As many of Australia’s native pollinators are still understudied and undervalued, the impact of neonicotinoids on native insects is unclear.

Given the evidence from European research, and the current stresses that honey bees and wild pollinators are already facing, the EU’s moratorium is inspiring. In this case, the ecological costs far outweigh the application benefits.

Manu Saunders does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.
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