Will Wal-Martís sales of organic cotton garments save the environment?
Walmart recently sold 190,000 yoga outfits made from organic cotton through its Samís Club stores. The Organic Exchange cheered, and announced that Wal-Mart had just saved the planetís cotton fields from being sprayed with another 500,000 pounds of pesticides. Many cheers.
But wait a minute. If the yoga outfits used about a pound of cotton apiece, and cotton yields average about 750 pounds per acre, the Organic Exchange was claiming that cotton growers apply a whopping 1,950 pounds of pesticide per acre! In reality, American cotton growers apply only about 2.3 pounds of pesticides per acre.
The organic yoga outfits actually saved 837 pounds of pesticideórather than 500,000. But whatís a little 600-fold math error between friends? Wal-Mart has corrected their web site to claim a saving of 50,000 pounds of pesticide (bringing the math error down to about 60 fold.)
Whatís really awful is that the Organic Exchange failed to take into account the biggest farming factor in saving the environment: yield per acre from the land we farm. Humanity is already farming about half of the Earthís land area not covered with ice or deserts. By 2050, a peak population of about 9 billion humans will live on the planet, and far more of them will be able to afford an extra cotton shirt or yoga toga. How will we save any land for Nature in a more populous and affluent world?
Only with higher yields. The 2.3 pounds of pesticides applied to an acre of U.S. cotton help save 750 pounds of cotton from boll weevils and weed competition.
In Africa, where much of the worldís tiny supply of organic cotton is grown, yields are only about 400 pounds. Tanzania gets only 200 pounds of cotton per acre! The biggest problem isnít even pests, but the lack of nitrogen to nourish the plant roots. U.S. farmers take their nitrogen from an inexhaustible sourceóthe air, which is 78 percent N. For some mysterious reason, organic farmingís rules forbid the nitrogen fertilizer that encourages higher yields.
Virtually all of the worldís wildlife is in the wildlands were we donít farm. Itís high time we started measuring our farming by how much land it leaves for nature, not by how much pesticide or fertilizer is used on the land where the wildlife isnít.
Of course, we could have it both ways, thanks to biotechnology. High-yield biotech cotton usually has an ultra-safe natural pesticide bred into its tissues. The only organisms affected by the bred-in pesticide are bugs that try to eat the cotton plant. It doesnít affect birds, bees or humans.
Does the Organic Exchange applaud the safer biotech crops? Nope. The organic movement has loudly banned all biotech crops from its markets, claiming that ďbiotech crops donít yield more.Ē
Wrong again. China has a new biotech cotton variety that yields 25 percent more fiber per acre than conventional cotton. Given Chinaís huge cotton plantings, that will save 3 million acres of farmland for food cropsówhich will ultimately save at least that much forest from being cleared and plowed. If the Organic Exchange could brag it had saved 3 million acres of Asian land for Nature, theyíd be up for a Nobel Prize.
Why doesnít the Organic Exchange factor high crop yields into their environmental tally sheet? Why doesnít Wal-Mart?
Wow, go biotech!
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Will Wal-Martís Organic Cotton Save the
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