I passed a cotton field ready for harvest the other day and unable to stop, made a mental note to come back for some pictures; I like the way it looks at this time of year. Cotton was not common in the area until recently, perhaps the disappearing farm subsidies for peanuts have compelled more farmers to grow it. I have learned something about cotton by attending pesticide re-certification programs. Why I have to sit through these programs mainly geared to commercial farmers makes no sense to me, but it is the only way I can keep my ornamental pestacide certification. Ironically the name of our local extension agent who coordinates these programs is Rex Cotton (Rex is Latin for king, King Cotton). Anyway, what little I have learned about cotton is that in spite of being pretty, I would not want to live next door to a field of it.
Besided being a water intensive crop, cotton also needs a great deal of pesticides in order to keep the insects off of it. In fact, cotton farming consumes 25% of all insecticides world-wide. If this was not bad enough, in order to harvest it without a lot of messy foliage getting in the fibers - it is often chemically defoliated prior to harvest. According to Mr. Cotton, this defoliation process causes a lot of farmer/non-farmer conflicts, as the chemical can often drift into neighboring trees and shrubs causing leaf drop. Since cotton is not a food crop, what can be legally sprayed on it is much stronger than what is used on other crops. One way agri-business has reduced the amount of pesticides used on cotton, is by developing genetically modified varieties, which contain Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Many gardeners may be familiar with Bt, as it is in a lot of organic pesticides. However, changing the DNA of cotton, or any other crop is not without consequences either.
So when you see those touchy-feely "fabric of our lives" ads, consider how cotton is grown, and keep in mind the dark history this plant has had in the American South, India and in other places. Maybe more of us can begin to look for and ask for organically grown, fair trade cotton. In the meantime I'll continue to enjoy how it looks, just not next door.