The problem with cotton is that it is everywhere; barely an hour goes by when you won’t be in contact with cotton. As you read this you are probably wearing a whole lot of cotton. Your underwear, your socks, your trousers, t-shirt, skirt. Maybe your sat in bed on cotton sheets, or your feet are on the carpet, that lovely soft cotton blend. Are you sat on the sofa? Perhaps in your pyjamas?
Another problem with cotton, is that it is largely genetically modified and not organic or desi (local cotton). BT cotton is the most prominent genetically modified cotton. It was first approved for commercial use in 1995, and like most genetically modified products it rapaciously eats up the market. As recently as 2014 it constituted 96% of cotton grown in the U.S and 95% of cotton grown in India. India is now both the largest exporter of BT cotton as well as the second largest producer.
The commercial benefits of BT are undeniable; it produces larger yields and quicker. The financial incentives to the farmer seem clear, as the demand for BT is far greater than local organic cotton. Not only this but in India BT cotton is subsidised by the government.
Government subsidisation in India is to the company that produces the modified seeds, Mahyco. The company makes a large amount of guaranteed profit by modifying the plant to reduce the amount of seeds it naturally produces and to reduce the efficacy of those it does produce after one generation. This means farmers are required to continuously buy further seeds, therefore a guaranteed market.
Cotton is being grown as a cash crop in environments it is not naturally suited to. This coupled with the fact that BT is an extremely thirsty plant and irrigation expensive, leads to large scale drought, such as in Gujarat. The narrative of the drought in Gujarat is that it is Climate Change induced. Whilst this is probably a factor, it is also a means of reducing accountability from the Indian state specifically, as Climate Change is everyone’s responsibility. It is unlikely that the government is going to want to give credence to a narrative that blames a crop that is worth billions to its economy and employs millions of people.
BT cotton is genetically modified to produce its own insecticides, this sounds great. No need for chemical pesticides! This however is a bit of false advertising. There are many threats to the plant, such as aphids, that do require damaging chemical pesticides. On top of this, the two-hundred toxins it is capable of releasing can kill beetles, butterflies and all sorts of organisms that are imperative to natural eco-systems.
Large-scale cotton farming is damaging to natural eco-systems in more ways than one. Cotton fibres released in the ginning process float their way into the existing eco-systems. They are ingested by small organisms that then die unnaturally. This then has a cumulative effect because these animals are then eaten by other predators in the chain, that then consume the fibres. Emerging studies also indicate that pests are becoming immune to the plants toxins which means further harmful pesticides are on the increase. This is ecologically damaging but also harmful to farmers’ profits.
The myth that claims that BT cotton is in the farmer’s favour start to come undone. In India farmer suicide rates as a result are tragically high and rising. In the state of Maharashtra alone there have been over 60,000 since 1995 and almost 3 million from across India.
BT cotton was banned in the Indian state of Maharashtra in 2012 but the ban was lifted less than a year later. This demonstrates how integrated into the national and global economy this plant has become. It also illustrates the power of government subsidising and the power of large corporations. Despite the environmental and therefore eventual social impacts, large forces turn the cogs of the wheel to keep their harmful product on the market. However, corporations like this do only have power where there is consumer demand and the truth is BT cotton is seductively softer than organic cotton. Who doesn’t like to run their hands indulgently through a railing of brightly coloured, soft, new-smelling shirts? I think we could however, give this practice up for a slightly less soft but less damaging alternative. The problem is we are divorced from the human and environmental costs of our clothing. We need to be educated in where our clothes come from, to care for them better and to think critically about more sustainable sources, Hemp anyone?