14474 Wed, 05/14/2008 - 3:01pm
By David Gill
NEW YORK–The word “organic” has become highly desirable for the packaging and advertising of a slew of consumer products. In home textiles, the presence of the words “organic cotton” have made those products even more salable in today’s retail environment.
For a cotton product to be considered “organic,” it has to pass muster with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cotton can’t be certified as organic unless it meets USDA standards for the amount of pesticides and chemicals used to grow it. In addition, the USDA also certifies organic cotton grown abroad; no cotton, regardless of where it’s grown, can be certified as organic unless it meets USDA standards.
Among the USDA standards, according to Kater Hake, vice president of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated, are a list of approved pesticides, limits on the use of certain varieties of biotechnology in growing the cotton and limits on the use of fertilizers.
“We can have a very high level of confidence in the organic cotton grown by U.S. farmers,” Hake said. “For example, the USDA regulates the safety practices used in organic farming in a very robust way. There are regulations on the sanitation practices used on these farms, and environmental regulations regarding the quality of the soil and runoff of water.
These restrictions are a prime reason why organic cotton is in short supply. The Cotton Incorporated article said only about 0.1 percent of the world’s total cotton production qualifies as organic.
“One of the biggest impediments is that the restrictions on organic farming increase the risk to the farmer,” Hake said. “The bulk of the world’s cotton is now grown in developing countries, and these countries are reluctant to increase this level of risk for the farmers.”
More particularly, Hake was referring to the financial risks farmers take on in the production process. “If you restrict the use of herbicides, you add to the risk for the farmers,” he said. “Cotton is a slower grower, very weak in its establishment phase, and for the first two months it has to be weed-free. Some years you’ll have a rainfall pattern in which the weeds are minimal, and you can get by with hand labor. In other years, the weeds can completely eliminate the cotton crop because hand labor isn’t enough.”
The economic climate also affects organic cotton supplies, and right now that climate is unhealthy. “The price differential between regular cotton and organic cotton goes a long way in determining supply,” Hake said. “Right now, with prices for all commodities so high, that differential is declining. Farmers are getting almost as much in prices for regular cotton as they are for organic cotton.”