All you need to know about cotton, part 4: the most common misconceptions about cotton growing and five takeaways

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You are a master of cotton! Now that you know everything about the difference between conventional industrial and organic agriculture, the current market, the types of seeds, and geographic peculiarities, it is time to underline the most important takeaways and reject some common misconceptions about cotton growing in the last chapter of our series.

Takeaway nr. 1: cotton is not a thirsty crop

There are many shared misconceptions about growing cotton, especially regarding water use. Modern and conventional farming practices abound with problems, but the real impact of growing cotton depends on various other factors, such as geography and seed and soil type. 

Have you ever heard that cotton is a thirsty crop? That is not true. The Aral Sea example is often cited: it is believed that this vast lake in Central Asia was drained to irrigate cotton fields. Unfortunately, this was just a classic case of mismanagement and not an indicator that cotton is a thirsty crop. 

The fake news that cotton is a high-water consumer was shared by a company that developed a waterless fabric printing technology working only on polyester. To promote its innovation, it launched a blog placing water preservation as the priority of the sustainable transition and, therefore, stating that synthetics were more eco-friendly than water-wasting natural fibers, such as cotton. This explains why if you search “how much water does it take to produce a pair of jeans?” on the Internet, you will often find a number like 10,000 liters. 

Cotton is actually a drought-resistant crop that thrives in a hot and dry climate, even through periods of water stress. In such situations, the foliage growth decreases to prioritize flowers and eventually fibers, which receive the scarce water available. According to an analysis conducted by Cotton Inc. in 2020, cotton was responsible for between 1% to 6% of the total water used for agriculture worldwide. Farming practices, cotton variety, the origin of water, irrigation technology, geography, soil health, and input use determine how much water is needed and, more importantly, wasted to irrigate crops. 

Takeaway nr. 2: cotton does not require too many pesticides 

A similar situation occurred for pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. After sharing the news that natural fibers wasted a lot of water, the company working on synthetics warned consumers of the significant number of pesticides required by cotton

Cotton is hence often cited as one of the biggest consumers of agricultural pesticides, but the figures usually referenced are outdated and incomplete. It is true that cotton is vulnerable to many types of pests, 480, but there are many regional differences in pesticide use, even though it has generally declined since the peak of the ‘80s. 

Not all pesticides are, however, harmful; sometimes, they are even necessary and beneficial for both the people and the environment. They just need to be used correctly

Of course, there is always room for improvement, but it is essential to remember that practices and technologies continually evolve and become increasingly efficient. 

Takeaway nr. 3: regenerative practices may surpass organic 

Despite all the complications, the future of cotton seems promising. Consumers, brands, and farmers are asking for its environmental and social impact reduction and more transparency along its value chain, so regenerative cotton is likely to increase its market share and, eventually, overcome the other types of sustainable cotton. 

Regenerative practices are flexible and farmer-friendly. Organic agriculture focuses on processes, defining some strict rules to follow to grow crops with an environmentally and socially friendly approach, while regenerative farming focuses on outcomes, aiming to restore natural ecosystems. Moreover, organic agriculture eliminates toxic substances and GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) but does not necessarily avoid other potentially harmful practices such as tillage and has a sometimes-overcomplicated certification process. Organic and regenerative are, however, not rivals, and they may also be complementary

It is necessary to ensure that regenerative agriculture does not become the next greenwashing gimmick, but this should not become a barrier to entry as with organic. Every positive change should be encouraged.

Takeaway nr. 4: not all types of cotton are the same

As seen in our third chapter, the difference starts with the cotton seed. Beyond different growing practices, much work is being done to enlarge the diversity in the types of cotton available, which are also conducive to regenerative agriculture. In contrast, GMOs, which have taken over the market, use the same narrow genetic base to create their products and focus more on the trait to insert into the genome.

Takeaway nr. 5: cotton needs more transparency

Last but not least, cotton needs more transparency. The textile industry should adopt a more direct and transparent approach starting from the farm to actively support the creation of a more environmentally and socially responsible cotton value chain. Our Blue Seed cotton is an example of a project designed to trace every supply chain step starting from the seed.

The typical characteristics of the cotton industry make it complex to ensure traceability and transparency. For instance, many suppliers are smallholders mingling their cotton at the gin, making it impossible to trace the raw materials to the farm and know how it was grown. This is a real issue since the industry is trying to protect labor rights and eliminate hazardous chemicals and off-target contamination, and consumers, brands, and retailers are demanding more transparency. 

Certifications can be used to verify cotton claims, but they are not always the right solution since there has been evidence of fraud and lacking oversight.

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