Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Whether you’re shopping for a t-shirt, bedsheets, or q-tips, you might have noticed that cotton products are more expensive if they’re organic. We wondered, is it worth it to pay the extra price? 

We had Isha Chawla and Fatima Husain from our Possibly team look into this. Welcome, Isha and Fatima!

Isha Chawla: Hi Megan!

Fatima Husain: Hello.

Megan Hall: So, Isha, you live in the center of the organic cotton industry, right?

Isha Chawla: Yes, I live in India, which grows more than half of the world’s organic cotton. 

Megan Hall: So, what makes cotton count as organic?

Isha Chawla: Like any crop, cotton can only be certified organic if it doesn’t use artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified seeds

Megan Hall: What’s the argument for NOT growing organic cotton?

Fatima Husain: Well, a lot of organic crops are less productive, or more labor-intensive, than non-organic.

Isha Chawla: Murli Dhar, who heads sustainable agriculture at the World Wildlife Fund, says organic cotton farmers in India can see a drop in production by as much as 30%.

Murli Dhar: When the farmers change the way of farming from conventional to organic then there will be yield drop for at least two to three years.

Isha Chawla: But after the first few years, the amount of crop they can grow per acre begins to rise until the difference between conventional and organic yields is only about 5%. 

Megan Hall: So, it sounds like it’s hard to start growing organic cotton, but if farmers hang in there, they can eventually grow just about as much. 

Isha Chawla: Exactly — and when they do, they can sell organic cotton for a lot more money. 

Megan Hall: Got it. So, what are the environmental benefits of organic cotton? 

Isha Chawla: To answer that, let’s focus on a defining feature of organic farming: fertiliser.

Fatima Husain: Conventional cotton uses artificial fertilizers, which give plants the exact balance of nutrients that they need. 

Isha Chawla: But, these fertilizers aren’t perfect- if farmers use too much, which they often tend to, they can drain out of the soil and enter nearby rivers and streams. 

Fatima Husain: These nutrients can lead to a chain reaction that removes oxygen from the water, which suffocates fish and other marine life.  

Isha Chawla: Plus, these fertilizers are made from fossil fuels — so making and using them creates greenhouse gas emissions.

Megan Hall: How are organic fertilizers different? 

Fatima Husain: Organic fertilizers, like compost or manure, take longer to decompose and release nutrients into the environment. So they are less likely to pollute any water nearby.

Isha Chawla: Also, they’re not made with fossil fuels.

Megan Hall: So, let’s say I’m shopping for a t-shirt- is it worth it to spend more money on one that’s made of organic cotton?

Fatima: Maybe. But here’s something else to consider: 

Isha Chawla: A lot of the emissions associated with cotton are connected not to how it’s grown, but how far it has to travel to get turned into fabric, sewn into something, and then delivered to you. 

Fatima Husain: So that cotton t-shirt, whether organic or conventional, has probably circled the globe before it hits your closet.  

Isha Chawla: That means if you want to buy cotton that has the least amount of impact on the planet, just buy less of it, or get second-hand fabrics. 

Fatima Husain: but if you can afford organic cotton, there is another reason to spend a little extra money. – Buying organic cotton can improve the livelihoods of farmers that take the risk to start growing it.   

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Isha and Fatima! 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio. 

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