Rainbow colour cotton

By Diana J. Choyce
Nov 15 - 21, 1999

Organic cotton growing could be benefit to Pakistan

Well over 35 million hectares of conventional cotton is cultivated globally, and its all the same colour. Get ready for the new tide of rainbow colour cotton crops. Actually natural pigmented cotton has been produced in the Andean area of South America since 2700 B.C. But since 1993 these colour crops have been making a comeback in both domestic and export markets.

Environmental concerns have prompted this revival as man gains more awareness of his impact on his world. Cotton has been a primarily agrochemical dependent crop. Close to 25 per cent of total pesticides are used on cotton crops, costing farmers well over $400 million dollars annually. Well over 14 pounds are used per acre of cotton. Farmers borrow about $750-$1000 dollars per acre to finance their crops and lenders actually require use of chemical sprays to insure a return on their investments. On the other hand, organic farmers spend about two thirds less to produce their crops. Partly to do lack of financing because lenders and not likely to back their crops. And also due to the savings in not using chemicals on their crops. An organic farmer can make between $1.15 and $1.35 per pound of fiber when conventional farmers bring in only about .72 cents per pound.

Herbicides and pesticides have been found to cause cancer in dolphins and other marine life. And a recent survey concluded that as many as 67 million birds are killed each year in the US. Chlorine bleaching of cotton fabric is a big contributor to depletion of the ozone layer. And dyes used to colour the fabrics can also damage the atmosphere as well as taint water supplies. Also the constant expansion of conventional crops has caused a drying up of inland lakes and wetlands due to damming and diverting rivers for needed water irrigation.

The biggest problem with these natural colour crops, is the cotton fibers which are too short, thin, and weak to be used in a modern textile mill. Enter Sally Fox who began her career as an inventor in 1982 as a handspinner for a California cotton breeder. Sally fell in love with the idea of creating colour based crops and embarked on a way to breed them. Her success has resulted in a patent and three Plant Variety Protection Certificates for her naturally coloured cottons which, in addition to browns, she now grows in reds and greens. She has also spun off two successful companies in Vreseis, Ltd. and Natural Cotton Colours, both operating in Arizona and California.

Beside the obvious advantage to the environment, natural colour cotton actually deepens in colour with repeated washings, unlike dyed cotton, which fades. Coloured cotton plants also resist pests and drought better, so they are very adaptable to dryland farming. But her work in the field has not been easy as she was met with resistance in many areas. Over the years problems have developed with the Arizona Department of Agriculture and Arizona Cotton Growers Association which may have resulted in her products being dropped from many well known retailers. This has caused severe financial problems for Sally and required a move to California to continue her business without interference. At last report, her FoxFibre cotton is being grown successfully in California and the future is looking good.

In 1995 the organic cotton market crashed due to lack of consumer sales. Even though tons produced surpassed the 13,000 mark, many large companies abandoned their projects in 1996 and moved back to conventional methods. But the recent increase in environmental awareness has led to a new growth of interest. Whether developing countries can afford to move into organic farming remains an interesting question. Production in tons in 1997 ranged from 5 in Brazil to almost 3000 in the US with the yearly worldwide total reaching 8000. The majority of tonnage is grown in Egypt, India, Peru, Turkey, Uganda, and the US. There is also a wealth of clothing suppliers and retailers to be found doing business on the internet. This has led to increased consumer knowledge that these products are available and affordable.

Pakistan cotton production estimates for 1999 were 10 million bales. Last year's figures were about 9000. Domestic use is expected in the 9000 range leaving 1 million ready for export. China's flood problems have seriously reduced their production and has opened an export lane for Pakistan to the Far East and Asia. Local textile manufacturers have complained at high domestic prices but the need for an influx of foreign monies into the country should override their needs. Given the ongoing pollution problems, organic cotton growing could be a benefit to the country. But would it fill the financial needs of the economy? Probably not, but even if only a fraction of Pakistan's cotton output would include organic crops, it could still bring in needed profits and help the environmental problems at the same time.