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Why I’m Paying Farmers to Convert to Biodynamic Cotton

When you think about curbing pollution, taking aim at the clothes in your closet is probably not high up on the list. But the textiles industry is one of the most polluting on the planet. New trends and “ultrafast fashion” has clothing entering popular clothing stores on a weekly or even daily basis.

As a result, Americans have increased how much clothing they buy, with the average person bringing home more than 65 articles of clothing in 2016, according to the “Toxic Textiles” report by Green America.1 Where clothing was once valued for durability and practicality, we’re living in an age where people feel pressured to keep up with clothing trends, at the expense of quality and the environment. Green America noted:2

“[S]ocial media has led to a new trend of ultra-fast fashion — where companies are able to design, manufacture, and sell hundreds of products mere weeks after the initial conception of design, thanks to a large network of local and international factories.

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Who Grew Our Clothes?

Author: Rebecca Burgess | Published: April 24, 2016 

Unraveling the story behind the glamor and surface appeal of fast fashion is like Dorothy and her little dog toto pulling the curtain back on the man whose amplified voice is used to create the illusion of the Wizard of Oz. The fervor and pomp of fast fashion lies in contrast to the landscapes from which it comes. It is in this chasm between what it appears to be and what it is, where the real costs to our lives and health lay quietly and anonymously below the radar of our consumption.

When we ask ‘who made our clothes’ we come into contact with a suite of global supply chains that connect what we put on our skin each day to human-operated cut & sew facilities, finishers, knitters or weavers, yarn spinning, carding, washing, ginning, or fossil fuel extraction for resin chips (for synthetic fibers), and in the case of natural fibers—we end up back on the farm. When we begin to take note of the ‘who’ in all of these processes we unearth the story of their contribution and the reality of their task and the risks they endure. During this year’s Fashion Revolution Week and for the purposes of this write-up we start from the bottom up to ask who grew our clothes, and how?’

For this exploration I am going to trace a few details related to the most ubiquitous natural fiber—cotton. The National Cotton Council states that in the United States the crop is grown in approximately 17 states and it covers 12 million acres of farmland. Three fourths of this cotton is used for our garments and 6.5 billion pounds of cottonseed enters the food system. We export our cotton to the tune of $7 billion and U.S. cotton accounts for 30% of the total world export market.

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Above: Cotton loading module in California, credit Gary Kramer, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Servicephotogallery.nrcs.usda.gov

According the USDA, 94% of the cotton planted in the U.S. in 2015 was genetically engineered (GE). The vast majority of U.S. cotton is resistant to the use of key herbicides that contain glyphosate—these commercial herbicides are known as Round-up, PROMOX, and WeatherMAX.

These synthetic compounds are used widely to destroy other plant material in the field, while leaving the cotton present. According to the National Cotton Council, farmers spend $780 million per year on chemical inputs, and $170 million on farm labor. Chemicals now cost more than human labor.

In regard to that labor and the reality of the working conditions in the GE cotton fields—a recent study from the Center for Biological Diversity from 2015, Lost in the Mist, illuminated that over half of the glyphosate used in California is sprayed in the state’s eight most impoverished counties, where 53% of the population is Hispanic or Latino (compared to 38% of the state as a whole). The southern part of California’s central valley is the heart of California cotton production, which includes the same counties identified in the study—Kern, Fresno, Tulare, Madera, Lake, Imperial, Merced and Del Norte. Farmworkers and land-managers applied over 10,370,147 pounds of glyphosate in our state alone in 2013, and 65% of that was used in these counties.

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Above: Mapping glyphosate use in California alongside demographic data, in Lost in the Mist by Center for Biological Diversity

What are the costs of using this much glyphosate in our fiber and food system?

In a peer-reviewed study from the scientific journal Toxicology, it was shown that glyphosate disrupted human cells within 24 hours of exposure in sub-agricultural doses. DNA damage occurred with exposures as low as 5 ppm (parts per million), and endocrine disruption (effecting human hormone balance) occurred at as low as .5 ppm.

In another peer-reviewed report by the Annual Review of Physiology it was stated that new epidemiological studies have connected endocrine disruption to metabolic syndrome, obesity and type II diabetes. Residues of glyphosate on some feed are allowed at levels up to 400 ppm, and there are currently no laws regulating the concentration of glyphosate residues on our fibers. The skin’s ability to absorb environmental toxins is a more direct pathway to our blood supply than through that which we ingest (the digestive tract is designed to find and expel toxins more effectively than the dermis layers), however we often do not consider what we put on our body as detrimental to our health in the same way we consider the detrimental effects of the food supply.

Perhaps it is for that reason that the risks of growing and wearing Round-up Ready cotton remain a fairly unregulated and unstudied arena. However, toxicological reports agree that glyphosate—the main chemical used to sustain the genetically engineered cotton supply—must be considered carcinogenic, and exposures to this synthetic compound are occurring through multiple environmental pathways.

Having just spent time late last week at a strategy meeting on the True Cost of American Food, it is now becoming increasingly evident that the cost of the industrially produced food supply could very well be bankrupting us. We know that half of all Californians either have type II diabetes or are in a pre-diabetic condition, costing our state $27 billion in health care costs each year. Farther afield, on a global scale, obesity is costing us $2 trillion annually, equivalent to 20% of our global spending.

While I realize it is already a fairly herculean task to internalize the costs of our food system, I cannot forgo the opportunity to seek to persuade our food systems stakeholders to include the costs of our fiber system in their analysis. The same land that feeds us, is clothing us.

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Above: the landscape that provided the materials and labor for Grow Your Jeans; photo by Paige Green.

The farm workers exposed to glyphosate are being subjected to this not only for food production, but also for fiber production. Our general population is being exposed to the compound via unregulated and yet to be measured ways via the fiber system, and it is clear that exposures are occurring through our food supply in concentrations known to create health risks. With such a low exposure threshold for endocrine disruption, it is clear we have a health crisis on our hands.

And then there is the task of turning the tide of mainstream consciousness, which includes the vast majority of wearers and eaters. In light of Fashion Revolution Week, and in light of all of the effort our local community is putting forward to illuminate the severe realities of this global industry—flash mobs, symposia, social media campaigns—it is still hard to say what forces will turn the tides of this industry. Perhaps the reality that our clothing is exposing us to endocrine disruptors, which are linked to obesity, metabolic disease, infertility, cancer, and diabetes?

It’s not just that those who are growing our clothes face these risks, it is all of us. While I’d like to think farm worker justice and welfare would be enough for the mainstream culture to change its consumption habits, I think that perhaps proliferating a more widespread understanding that the beauty we seek to create from fashion is being directly undermined by how we are producing it. I can imagine there are few who would be pleased to know that their clothing is harming their health.

You may ask, what are the options? With over 94% of our cotton being genetically engineered and reliant on the use of glyphosate-rich herbicides, what can we do?

Starting in our home community, there is a lot we can do. In our Fibershed of Northern California, we live within 150 miles of two cotton projects that are offering stellar options for the fashion industry.

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Above: Sally Fox in her organic cotton fields in the Capay Valley, photos by Paige Green

To the north is Sally Fox, the first biodynamic certified color-grown cotton farmer in the United States, and a longtime organic practitioner and breeder who rotates her cotton with winter wheat, and co-plants with black-eyed peas, sunflowers and milo. Her fine flock of merino sheep grazes down her cotton stubble at the end of the season, cycling nutrients quickly for her next year’s crop.

To the south of us is the Sustainable Cotton Project, a project focused on providing a non-genetically engineered Pima and Acala Cotton at scale. Farther afield outside of our intimate region there is the West Texas Organic Cooperative, another scaled project that plants 10-19,000 acres per year. For all of these projects drought has intensified the pressures of what is already a thin margin crop.

To support these projects we recommend connecting with the farmer or co-op you find connects most deeply to your values or a strategic geography that you are committed to, and finding out who has been purchasing from these land-bases and where you can source finished garments and fabric.

As Fashion Revolution Week encourages each of us to ask ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ and to understand the fashion industry conditions which led to the lives lost and injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza Complex in Bangladesh, we need to continue to seek that same transparency throughout the fashion and fiber system. Whether for the health and human rights of workers at every part of the supply chain down to the soil, or for our own personal health, we need to consider ‘who grew our clothes, and how?’

RE-POSTED WITH PERMISSION FROM FIBERSHED. SEE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE.

Did People Suffer For Your Cotton Shirt? DNA Tagging Lets You Track Its Origins

Author: Elizabeth Segran | Published on: March 22, 2017

Cotton is a dirty crop, often tinged with human suffering.

Consider the farmers in India, the world’s largest producer of cotton. There, the crop is generally harvested on small farms, where families go into debt to buy seeds from Monsanto, a seed supplier that dominates 90% of the Indian market. As I’ve reported before, it only takes one bad year for a family to lose everything. This has led to an epidemic in suicides, with an estimated 300,000 farmers taking their own lives over the past two decades in order to spare their children the consequences of this debt.

Given devastating figures like these, many consumers understandably want to know more about the origins of the cotton they buy. A solution to that problem is not as far away as you think: Pimacott, the American division of the Indian cotton supplier Himatsingka, has been working on a technology that uses DNA tagging to allow you pinpoint exactly where your cotton comes from. As its name suggests, Pimacott only develops pima, a variety of cotton that is grown largely in the San Joaquin Valley in California and in particular regions of Peru. Because the company focuses on high-end cotton, it needed a way to assure customers that they were getting authentic and unadulterated pima, especially because raw pima might be brought overseas to be woven and turned into products.

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Biodiversity on Organic Farms in Telangana, India

Author: Andrew Flachs | Published: February 14, 2017  

Most commercial agriculture around the world comes in the form of monocultures, where whole fields are devoted to a single plant. Monocultures are stark landscapes, built around the logic of factories rather than the logic of farmers or forests.

It doesn’t need to be that way. The monoculture way of thinking that underlies our contemporary food and agriculture systems is a fairly recent invention. Agricultural biodiversity has long been a part of the farmer’s toolkit, benefiting the natural landscape and agrarian life.

Nowhere is this clearer than with cotton. Since 2012, I’ve researched the lives of farmers in India choosing between non-organic cotton cash crops and organic cotton programs, asking how people and their environments are affected by this agricultural decision. By learning how to work together, farmers and organic development groups can develop locally appropriate and mutually beneficial initiatives that reduce social and environmental vulnerability in these villages.

When people living in North America or Europe imagine a cotton farm, they might picture a forest of white fluffy plants. That’s a perfect example of a monoculture. Planting only one kind of crop makes it simpler to sow seeds, harvest yields, fertilize crops, clear weeds and treat for pests, especially when the farmer in question is using chemicals and machines to help them in that work. All the tools are specialized to the task at hand, and all the work happens in one place, just like a factory that brings workers together and then divides up the labor under one roof.

Yet this kind of farming can be hard to keep up. If a farmer plants the same crop in the same field year after year, the plants use up the same nutrients from the soil and attract the same pests each year. Therefore, farmers planting monocultures have to work even harder to kill those pests and replenish the nutrients lost in the soil, locking them into a vicious cycle of chemicals, pests and farm expenses.

Biodiversity is a problem for modern agriculture. Monocultures reduce the biodiversity of the land by transforming fields into areas where only one plant matters. By this way of thinking, plants and animals that creep onto the farm are interlopers who threaten productivity.

Most Indian cotton farmers are planting genetically modified (GM) cotton, and have been steadily increasing their use of herbicides to control weeds in their fields. They are also placing their cotton plants closer and closer together. Both of these moves make their fields less biodiverse because they eliminate the possibility of planting fruits and vegetables in field gaps that spread out their agricultural risk.

Because of international laws, farmers cannot certify GM crops as organic and sell them with organic premiums, even if they are grown without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Despite these downsides, Indian cotton agriculture is dominated by GM Bt cotton, a variety that has been modified to produce one or more insecticidal toxins as it grows. GM cotton fields also lack biodiversity, not because the plants are genetically modified, but because they are planted as monocultures.

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Solving Climate Change With Beer From Patagonia’s Food Startup

Authors: Bradford Wieners | Published on: October 3, 2016

Yvon Chouinard, the short, bluff, fatalistic founder of Patagonia, the company renowned for its pricey parkas, fuzzy fleeces, and exhortations to buy fewer of them, sits in a cafeteria-style Chinese restaurant in Jackson, Wyo. He scratches a clam from its shell, forks it into his mouth, chews, checks the time. “Oh, we’re fine,” he says, and Birgit Cameron, seated on his right, does her best to look reassured. A fairly recent addition to the Patagonia family, Cameron seems as eager to make a good impression this evening as Chouinard is indifferent to how he’s perceived. The two are expected in 10 minutes at the Center for the Arts in Jackson, where they’ll appear on stage together and introduce Unbroken Ground, a 26-minute film produced by Patagonia that highlights the suppliers of Patagonia Provisions, the three-year-old sister food company that Cameron heads. Depending on your level of cynicism, Unbroken Ground may strike you as a well-turned documentary about the ecologically enlightened suppliers behind the foods she sells, or perhaps as a slick marketing piece. Naturally, it’s both.

“It’s hard to get people fired up about how cotton is grown in Turkey,” Chouinard says, “but we’ve got to, because the way 99 percent of cotton is grown, it’s a disaster. And it’s the same with where most of our food comes from. So we use film because a lot of these little guys we’re working with don’t have the resources to make a movie. We do.”

At 77, Chouinard long ago stepped back from Patagonia’s day-to-day operations, but he and his wife, Malinda (also present, but not to be quoted), remain the owners and stewards of the brand. They mostly split their time between here, where their home faces the Teton Range, and Ventura, Calif., where Patagonia’s headquarters and their children and grandkids are. Both published books in the last two months: Yvon, an updated edition of his memoir-cum-management treatise, Let My People Go Surfing; Malinda, with co-author Jennifer Ridgeway,Family Business: Innovative On-Site Child Care Since 1983, a monograph promoting kindergartens at corporate offices.

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Indian Farmers Cotton on to New Seed, in Blow to Monsanto

Authors: Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav

In a tiny hamlet at the heart of the cotton belt in northern India, Ramandeep Mann planted Monsanto’s (MON.N) genetically modified Bt cotton seed for over a decade, but that changed after a whitefly blight last year.

Mann’s 25-acre farm in Punjab’s Bhatinda district now boasts “desi”, or indigenous, cotton shrubs that promise good yields and pest resistance at a fraction of the cost.

Mann is not alone.

Thousands of cotton farmers across the north of India, the world’s biggest producer and second largest exporter of the fibre, have switched to the new local variety, spelling trouble for seed giant Monsanto in its most important cotton market outside the Americas.

The Indian government is actively promoting the new homegrown seeds, having already capped prices and royalties that the world’s largest seed company is able to charge.

“Despite the whitefly attack, farmers in northern India are still interested in cotton, but they are moving to the desi (indigenous) variety,” says Textile Commissioner Kavita Gupta.

Official estimates peg the area planted with the new variety at 72,280 hectares in northern India, up from roughly 3,000 hectares last year.

That is still a tiny percentage overall, and most farmers in the key producing states of Gujarat and Maharashtra are sticking to Monsanto’s GM cotton, which has been instrumental in making India a cotton powerhouse.

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