Cotton being sprayed, South Carolina © Plexus/CVT
We think of cotton as a natural, pure product. However, cotton cultivation can have a dramatic impact on the environment.
Cotton plants are regularly sprayed with pesticides to limit insect damage. Herbicides are also used to control weeds. When the cotton is ready to be harvested, it is often sprayed with defoliant to remove the leaves to make mechanical picking more efficient.
If cotton is grown in dry climates, the crop will need extra water. One extreme example is in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where the over-reliance on cotton as a crop has led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea. This has had a major impact on human health in the surrounding areas, because the drinking water has been contaminated by salt, fertilisers and pesticides.
These environmental concerns have led to a growing consumer interest in organic cotton.
Much of the cotton grown in the world today is Genetically Modified (GM). This means the structure of the plant has been altered by adding or removing genes to create certain characteristics.
A lot of the cotton grown today has been altered to make it resistant to certain pests. This could be seen as a benefit as it reduces the need for chemicals. However, some cotton seed has been modified to be make it resistant to weedkiller. This means that the field can be sprayed with weedkiller, killing the weeds but leaving the cotton plants unaffected.
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