When talking about sustainability, the difference between organic cotton and traditional cotton is often misunderstood or misrepresented. In fact, there is not much difference in planting practices between the two production systems.
The source of seeds and the chemical technology used to grow and protect crops.
Organic cotton growers cannot use biotech (genetically modified) seeds, and in most cases, cannot use synthetic pesticides, unless other more preferred methods are not sufficient to prevent or control target pests1,7. Technically speaking, organic cotton must be grown on land where there are no prohibited substances within three years. In the United States, organic cotton needs to be verified by a third party and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Traditional cotton growers have greater freedom. They can grow bio-transgenic technology seeds or traditional breeding seeds. They can use synthetic or natural nutrients and crop protection agents, or a combination of the two.
Does traditional cotton require more water than organic cotton?
Generally speaking, no more water is needed. The crop’s production system (organic or traditional) has no effect on its water demand. The water requirement is determined by the planting area and the specific variety of cotton. In addition, both production systems can benefit from soil health practices (regenerative agriculture, use of cover crops, multiple crop rotations, etc.), which have been shown to significantly increase soil organic matter and water storage capacity.
Are the fiber yields of organic cotton and traditional cotton equivalent?
Generally speaking, the fiber yield per acre of organic cotton is usually low. This is largely due to the difficulty in controlling large-scale pest and weed growth while complying with organic guidelines.
Is organic cotton planting more sustainable than traditional cotton planting?
It depends on how to define and measure sustainability. Both organic cotton and traditional cotton have the ability to reduce certain environmental impacts when produced responsibly. However, according to the standard, neither of them is more sustainable than the other.
Are pesticides allowed for organic cotton?
Anyway, yes. In the United States, for example, there is a list of approved organically produced pesticides that come from two synthetic and non-synthetic sources. However, the use of insecticides to control target pests is only permitted when other more preferred methods are insufficient for prevention. Under the premise of following product usage methods, both non-synthetic and synthetic pesticides can be used reasonably to minimize the impact on human health and the environment. These products are essential to reduce other impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption, while ensuring production to provide enough food and fiber to meet growing global demand.