The Organic advantage through the lenses of the Eco-Index – Toxics
Welcome back to our series on organic cotton through the lenses of the Eco-Index. So far we have examined the organic advantage by considering impact through the phase one lenses of: Water, Energy/GHG, and Waste. Note: for phase one of the Index, only these three lenses have been fully developed to date by the Eco-Index Working Group (EWG) and are in scope for full metrics footprinting.
The remaining lenses: Toxics/Chemistry (both to people and environment), Biodiversity, and Landuse Intensity are currently sitting within the framework as ‘placeholders’. When the Index is complete, each lens will have a minimum of one specific metric associated with it, coupled with a clear methodology as to how to determine the measure (OIA).
So what does the Eco-Index say about Toxics/Chemistry to date? For a start it divides it into two categories: People, and Environment.
For People the Index describes Toxics/Chemistry as: Frequently harmful substances that are used in the supply chain. Most commonly in the materials lifecycle stage, but frequently in other stages, such as manufacturing or even use and care. For many of these substances, they pose a direct threat to human health, whether it is the worker who may be exposed during production; to the community who lives in or near the production; to the end consumer who uses the product where the substance may be integral to, or residual within, the product. This lens concerns itself with the impact on people across the entire lifecycle.
For Environment the lens is very similar to the Chemistry/Toxics-People, except it is solely intended to address all other direct substance impacts other than on people. For many of these substances, they pose a more significant threat to the environment—such as aquatic life.
Organic advantage - Certification is a clear benefit
Certifying organic cotton is a regulatory process and the meeting of Organic Standards must be third party assured. As a brand or retailer trying to assess impact through this lens, all the work is done for you.
Organic Regulations ban the use of persistent and toxic chemicals. This makes any metrics associated with Toxics/Chemistry a definite win for organic. We know exactly what goes in and more important metrically-speaking, what doesn’t. Standards for organic cotton agriculture are based on absolute requirements (get over this hurdle or else) rather than the more relative improvement measures (are you better than you were yesterday?) required by most sustainability standards. This makes measuring the impact of organic cotton under the Toxics/Chemistry lens much more straight forward and easier to quantify.
We talked the other day about quantifying hazardous waste, and how the organic advantage was the omission of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers (that could result in issues with hazardous waste). For the Toxics/Chemistry lens it’s pretty much the same; the substances are simply not there to begin with. Not only does this make the job of quantifying impact easy – it has the added advantage of overlapping other impact areas: waste (as discussed), but also all the others: water, GHG emissions, biodiversity, even landuse intensity. The other obvious advantage, in part covered here, is the social impact due to the removal of occupational risk for farmers, and health and safety risks to farm families from pesticides; such as spray drift, residues on food (and mum and dad), storage leaks, and accidental exposure to chemicals in reach of children.
Mapping chemical use
It is fair to say that most people involved in cotton production are interested in reducing the use of harmful agrichemicals and using safer alternatives more responsibly.
Cotton is ranked 3rd behind corn and soybeans in the total amount of pesticides applied (United States Dept. of Agriculture) and is also the 4thmost heavily synthetic fertilized crop after corn, winter wheat, and soybeans. Three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production (Organic Trade Association).
Reports by the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) amongst others suggest that, globally, insecticide use is reducing. A decade or so ago, researchers and lobbyists suggested cotton accounted for up to 25% of the world's insecticide use, and more than 10% of the pesticides including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants. However, in the ICAC report, Cropnosis, a private company in the UK, say that the share of insecticide use in cotton sits around 15.7% of global usage, and total pesticide consumption has declined to 6.8%. How much of this decline can be attributed to genetic modification (as some people think) compared to better integrated pest management and other field improvements is not perfectly clear. Alongside the fall in insecticide use, we know that the use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup) is on the rise – in part due to the promotion of Roundup as part of a conservation tillage technique. Glyphosate – and GMOs for that matter - are considered relatively safe in agriculture by some and seriously problematic by others, such as Dr Don Hube - an expert in an area of science that relates to the toxicity of genetically engineered (GE) foods.
Furthermore the recent banning of the organochlorine, endosulphan (an insecticide used commonly in cotton growing) should improve the situation, although there is not a unanimous agreement that endosulphan is really among the worst of them – or evidence that all developing countries are phasing it out (NCBI).
A word of caution
Finally, I would also like to point out that, while a global decline of pesticide use in cotton is encouraging, we should not be complacent. In many developing countries where farmers are often uneducated or illiterate, and where banned pesticides are still in circulation, the chronic deterioration of farmers’ health, acute accidental exposures, even suicide by chemical ingestion are still very real problems. Not to mention the contamination of sensitive ecosystems and aquatic life.
Organic farmers use knowledge rather than chemicals
Years and years of researching how ecosystems work, how bugs multiply, and how to replace agrichemicals with natural methods and botanicals means there is a wealth of knowledge around on how to grow crops without using synthetic agrichemicals. That’s not to say it is an easy process – not by a long shot! Nor is there zero risk; any substance no matter how natural it is, in the right (or wrong) concentrations or quantities can be hazardous to health. Also, organic agriculture is not always carried out completely free of commercial products; there is a list of approved substances for organic farmers to choose from (albeit these lists may vary slightly from country to country) and a demand in the market. But the principle of knowledge not chemicals goes a very long way. The challenge is knowledge is not as easy as agrichemicals to mass-produce, package, shelve, and make a profit from – this may well be organic agricultures’ biggest ‘fault’.
Next week let’s take a closer look at the remaining eco-lenses of Biodiversity and Landuse Intensity. Plus a special focus on measuring social impacts.
Farm Hub – Health & Safety http://farmhub.textileexchange.org/learning-zone/all-about-organic-cotton/social-impacts/-health-safety
Environmental Justice Foundation: Pesticides and Cotton http://www.ejfoundation.org/page332.html Plus their report ‘Deadly Chemicals In Cotton’ http://www.ejfoundation.org/pdf/the_deadly_chemicals_in_cotton.pdf
Pesticide Use in Cotton, The Expert Panel on Social, Environmental and Economic Performance of Cotton Production (SEEP), ICAC 2010 http://www.icac.org/seep/documents/reports/2010_interpretative_summary.pdf
PAN UK A catalogue of lists of pesticides identifying those associated with particularly harmful or environmental impacts http://www.pan-europe.info/Campaigns/pesticides/documents/cut_off/list%20of%20lists.pdf
Phasing in alternatives to Endosulfan, PAN Germany: http://www.pan-germany.org/download/phasing_in_alternatives_to_endosulfan.pdf
Organic Trade Association http://www.ota.com/organic/environment/cotton_environment.html