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Growing Organic Cotton: Respecting Our Health and the Environment

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The cotton plant is grown in over 80 countries worldwide and uses approximately 2.5% of the Earth’s cultivated land.  The cotton fiber is the world’s most widely cultivated and produced natural fiber and is used in everything from clothing and personal care products, to the mattresses we sleep on.1 cotton flowerThe vast use of cotton has pushed the agricultural community to produce up to 24.8 million metric tons of conventional cotton annually. 2 Organic cotton is being produced on a much smaller scale, in approximately 22 countries by 220,000 farmers; producing up to 175,113 metric tons annually. 3   Cotton is used in most of the products we sell at The Natural Sleep Store.  From organic bedding, to organic mattresses, cotton is our most used material.  Due to the popularity of cotton, it is important to look at the practices used throughout the lifecycle of the plant.  This article will explore the lifecycle of conventional cotton and organic cotton, from the sowing of the seed to a finished fabric, along with the impact each is having on human health and the environment.  Through comparison we will uncover the practices in conventional cotton farming that are destroying our environment and its inhabitants, and show how organic cotton farming is promoting heath and stability.

Growing Organic Cotton

Organic farming is based on a respect for the environment and the people who inhabit the earth. In organic cotton farming the process is organic from beginning to end, starting with an untreated seed and soil that has not had conventional farming for at least three years.  All-natural processes are used to boost the yield of the crop and to regenerate the soil productivity. There are many techniques used to deter pests, replenish topsoil fertility, and improve the ecosystem within the soil and around the crop. The practices that achieve these goals are cover cropping, crop rotation, and trap cropping. 4  Cover cropping is when a plant, often in the legume family, is planted on the soil in the off season or during crop rotation. Nitrogen is plentiful in the Earth’s atmosphere but is very rare in soil. Legumes are nitrogen fixing plants that increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil by taking it out of the atmosphere and depositing it in the soil through its roots. 5  The cover crop also helps to prevent soil erosion. Crop rotation is the process of rotating crops systematically to help build healthy soil. Using a crop rotation helps retain water in soil due to the soil’s higher amount of organic matter, and the rotation simply gives the soil time to replenish its nutrients. 6 Trap cropping is a way to deter pests from a crop by planting a different plant in a row next to the desired crop. By luring the pests to the other plant the cotton is kept safe. Weeds are simply controlled by weeding the fields by hand or with small hand tools.

Growing Conventional Cotton

A seed planted in soil is the first step to the growth of any living plant. In the case of conventional cotton the seed is the first step in which the agricultural industry and farmers can modify the cotton plant.7 The majority of the cotton seeds planted in the United States are genetically modified organisms or GMOs. The cotton seed is altered to carry a bacteria Bacillus thuringensis, also known as Bt cotton, which is a measure of pest control and prevents bollworms from feeding on the plant.  Cotton seeds are also treated with fungicides or insecticides before being planted to insure a greater germination percentage, which is just the beginning to the use of chemicals in conventional cotton farming practices.

Soil fertility is a leading problem in the practices of conventional cotton farming. The soil on the cotton farms quickly becomes degraded and sterile due to the cotton monoculture. A monoculture is when a single plant species or crop is planted on a large amount of agricultural land year after year. The monoculture of conventional cotton leads to a lack of organic matter and a non-complex ecosystem within the top soil. The barren soil requires extensive amounts of irrigation to retain the water provided as well as synthetic fertilizer. 8 The synthetic fertilizer used to increase soil fertility is an anhydrous ammonia (NH3) which has an extremely large amount of nitrogen.

While cotton is growing it is threatened by weeds that have the potential of obstructing the plants growth. Herbicides are sprayed on the soil to stop the germination of weeds, and repetitive herbicide sprays continue into the growing season to kill any weeds that were able to germinate and thrive. 9  Pests are controlled using insecticides and pesticides that are highly toxic and probable carcinogens. The insecticides are applied to the field by aerial sprays which increases the amount of insecticides used. In fact, American cotton farmers use about 12 lbs. of synthetic agricultural chemicals per planted acre making it one of the dirtiest crops.10

Harvesting Organic Cotton

During the harvesting period organic cotton farmers rely heavily on a seasonal freeze during the defoliation period; this is the time when the leaves fall off the plant, releasing the cotton fiber within. Defoliation is important during a cotton harvest because the leaves cannot be mixed with the cotton crop. The cotton is often harvested in similar mechanical methods as conventional practices but preferably by hand on smaller cotton farms. 11

Harvesting Conventional Cotton

When the cotton growing season is coming to an end conventional cotton farmers do not rely on natural processes to defoliate the crop. Chemical defoliants are sprayed on a plant to make their leaves fall off prematurely, and are also sprayed on the cotton to make the bolls open. 12 Cotton fibers are encased in bolls during the growth of the plant and under natural circumstances the fiber would help in the seed dispersal, similar to a dandelion seed. The defoliants used in cotton farming are very similar to Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War.

Processing Organic Cotton

During the processing stages, organic cotton is cleaned with a natural cleaner, like potato starch, and finished and dyed in a way that is not harmful to the environment or to the people using the finished cotton product. Some organic cotton is color grown and some is colored using dyes that are from a non-toxic or vegetable origin.13

Processing Conventional Cotton

Due to the interest in having certain properties in finished cotton textiles such as a specific colors or a wrinkle-resistant finish, dangerous chemicals need to be used in the process. Examples of these include azo dyes (which have a component of benzidine) and formaldehyde. 14  Not only do the chemicals used in the finishing stages of conventional cotton pose a threat to human health they also have a large impact on the environment. 15

What does this all mean for the health of humans and our environment?

The extremes of conventional cotton pollution have been multiplied as science has created more toxic, potent chemicals and as the demand for cotton has grown. Many of the conventional cotton farming practices described above have life threatening consequences to humans, wildlife and the environment. The most alarming truths of cotton farming include its monoculture, the synthetic fertilizers, the persistent pesticides, the defoliants used, and the chemical processes used to finish the cotton. From a cause and effect perspective, the next section of this article will describe the effects of the chemicals and practices used in conventional cotton farming.


In conventional cotton farming when a single crop is planted on a plot of land year after year the soil becomes degraded; devoid of all organic matter or a complex ecosystem. The lack of organic matter makes it impossible for the water from rain or irrigation to be absorbed into the soil. Since water retention is so low, extensive irrigation is required. The irrigation causes salinization, which is when salt levels in the soil rise.  As a result of a monoculture, the barren soil has large amounts of run off which usually ends up in the rivers and fresh water sources that surround the fields. 16 The second repercussion from a monoculture is that due to the lack of organic matter in the soil the land will not produce a viable crop without the use of synthetic fertilizers which are nitrogen based. The problem of run off and the use of synthetic fertilizer then exacerbate the negative effects of each other. The cotton crop depletes the nutrients in the soil year after year, which leaves the soil barren and results in run off. The run off carries the nutrients away and makes added fertilizer a necessity. Thus when the enormous amounts of fertilizer are used it is also present in the run off into our streams and rivers. The presence of the nitrogen in the runoff has devastating results.

Synthetic Fertilizers/Nitrogen

Some of the negative repercussions of using synthetic fertilizers include nitrogen contaminated lakes, rivers, and oceans, death of fish and other aquatic species, nitrate-contaminated drinking water which can be fatal to babies and cause health complications in children and adults, oxidized nitrates that cause smog and deplete the ozone layer, the usage of large amounts of non-renewable fossil fuels, and it makes soil weak and the plants that grow on it even weaker. 17 Although there is a long list of known impacts to the environment, wildlife, and human health it is very possible that there are unknown impacts that scientists will learn more about as we move into the future.


In conventional cotton farming the answer to environmental factors that threaten the final crop is to use persistent pesticides, including herbicides and insecticides, to kill any pest that could threaten the cotton yield. To give you an idea of the toxicity of the chemicals used in conventional cotton growth, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled all of the top nine cotton chemicals as either Category I or II materials, this is the most toxic classification. 18

The application of pesticides is often with aerial spraying, which can drift with wind and contaminate adjacent fields, threaten the health of nearby humans and wildlife alike, and can compromise the organic status of local farms, which threatens the livelihood of the farmer. If an organic farm is down wind of the conventional aerial spraying the farm’s organic status could then be compromised.19   Since pesticides are designed to inhibit the growth of biological organisms by attacking their physiological growth it is not surprising to know that they are also dangerous to humans and wildlife alike. In third world countries, the reckless use of pesticides is detrimental to the people living near cotton farms. Among these communities, thousands have died.20  Although cotton farming practices are much more dangerous in developing countries, farmers are using similar practices in the United States.  In California in 1996, 250 farm workers were accidentally sprayed with highly toxic pesticides during an aerial spray.  Many workers had to receive treatment for acute pesticide poisoning. 21

Persistent pesticides are scary because they are stable in the environment and they do not break down over time, which means it can be stored in living fat tissue and can be passed to other animals higher in the food chain. You do not need to live close to a farm for this to be true for you. In a study by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), 1,342 people were tested for 23 different pesticides. A startling average of 13 pesticides were found in each person. Furthermore, at least 3 of the 23 pesticides in the study were found in 100% of the 1,342 people tested.22    This shows that the overall use of pesticides, not just direct exposure, can have long term and escalating problems within the food chain and environment.

As we move through life our chemical burden grows as we are exposed to more and more pesticides. Babies and infants are the most vulnerable to chemical exposure of pesticides through breast milk as are elderly people because of the chemical burden that they have been exposed to throughout their life. It is unknown how different pesticides react with one another once in our bodies but according to PAN North America, “many diseases and syndromes associated with aging have been linked in scientific studies to pesticides and other chemicals, including prostate, kidney and other cancers, thyroid disorders, hearing loss and Parkinson’s disease.” 23


Defoliants are used on a large scale in conventional cotton farming. The organophosphate defoliant, Tribufos can have serious adverse side effects on human health and wildlife. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “Tribufos can cause cholinesterase inhibition in humans; that is, it can over stimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, confusion, and at very high exposures (e.g., accidents or major spills), respiratory paralysis and death.” 24   Even though Tribufos is proven to cause cholinesterase inhibition in humans, there are no laws against its use. 25

Finishing Chemicals from Processing Stage

The processing stages of conventional cotton are used to reach a certain quality in the finished product, but is the importance of a wrinkle resistant sheet or beautiful color worth being exposed to the harmful chemicals used in the process?  The chemical used in the processing stages are often found in the finished product whether it is the shirt on your back or the sheets you sleep between each night.26  There are many known side effects associated with the different chemicals used in the processing of conventional cotton. Benzidine, a component of azo dyes, is proven to have a direct correlation with urinary-bladder cancer in humans and animals. The direct exposure of benzidine to factory workers and their cases of urinary-bladder cancer are not a coincidence.27  Formaldehyde is a scary ingredient in the finishing stages because it is often found on the finished product. Formaldehyde has been known to cause side effects from skin irritation to cancer. 28   From an ecological standpoint the chemicals used to dye and finish conventional cotton are hard to dispose of without contaminating the earth’s fresh waterways in addition to being non-biodegradable. 29

The Decision is Yours

            After exploring the differences between conventional cotton and organic cotton it is clear that their biological life cycles are the same whereas the way in which they are farmed, harvested and processed is quite different. Organic cotton farming is kind and forgiving to the environment, while also helping to provide a sustainable Earth for humans and wildlife to continue thriving. Conversely, conventional cotton farming is degrading our soil, poisoning our youth, and destroying our planet. This matter is not one of little scale or small importance. In fact this matter is one that should be on the forefront of civilians and farmers minds alike. The most important concept to take away from reading this article is that you, the consumer, has a choice in the clothes you wear, cotton products you purchase, and especially the mattress you sleep on for a third of your life.  Please purchase organic cotton organically because every little bit helps.

1 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Natural Fibers: Cotton.

2 USDA. World Cotton Production Chart in Tons.

3 Organic Trade Association. Organic Cotton Facts.

4 Abraham Asare, Nkafu Patrick Asonganyi, Elenora Cogo, Anne Mette Dalum, and Lis Nowak, Life Cycle Assessment of Organic Cotton ( University of Aalborg, 2006), 1-13.

5Organic Valley Family of Farms 2013. Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers.

6 About Organic Cotton. Organic Cotton is Different.

7 ICCO, SECO, Textile Exchange and HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation. The Cotton Value Chain.

8 About Organic Cotton. Cotton is Different.

9 Ibid.

10 Sustainable Cotton Project. Got Cotton?.

11 Asare, Asonganyi, Gogo, Dalum, and Nowak. Life Cycle Assessment.(1-13).

12 Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Cotton Production in Mississippi: Defoliation General Discussion.

13 Asare, Asonganyi, Gogo, Dalum, and Nowak. Life Cycle Assessment.(1-13).

14 Department of Human Health and Human Services, National Toxicology Program, Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition, 2011. 62,

15 B. Ramesh Babu, A.K. Parande, S. Raghu, and T. Prem Kumar, “Textile Technology Cotton Textile Processing: Waste Generation and Effluent Treatment,” The Journal of Cotton Science 11, (2007): 141.

16 ICCO, SECO, Textile Exchange. Cotton Value Chain.

17 Organic Valley Family of Farms 2013. Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers.

18 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pesticides, 2013,

19 About Organic Cotton. Cotton is Different.

20 Institute of Science in Society, Picking Cotton Carefully.

21 Pesticide Action Network, Problems with Conventional Cotton Production.

22 Center For Disease Control, Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.

23 Pesticide Action Network, Pesticides in Our Bodies.

24 EPA, Pesticides, 2013.

25 Kope Textiles and Initiatives, Organic Cotton.

26 Babu, Parande, Raghu, and Prem Kumar, “Textile Technology Cotton Textile Processing: Waste Generation and Effluent Treatment,”.

27 Department of Human Health and Human Services, National Toxicology Program, Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition.

28 Hanu, Organic Textiles.

29 Babu, Parande, Raghu, and Prem Kumar, “Textile Technology Cotton Textile Processing: Waste Generation and Effluent Treatment”.