While a broad array of research has shown that organic production can provide significant environmental benefits, few studies have actually looked at the specific practices used by organic cotton growers and processors in the United States and documented real-world impacts those practices are having on the environment. A new research project out of Iowa State University fills this gap by surveying organic cotton producers and processors to better understand the specific approaches and methods used in organic cotton production and processing, and the environmental impacts of those techniques.


What They Found 

  • Conventional cotton relies heavily on GMO herbicide-tolerant and Bt-cotton for managing pests, but because GMO’s are banned in organic production, organic farmers rely on a healthy ecosystem to manage pests, and use soil and biodiversity building techniques such as crop rotations, resistant and tolerant varieties, and fostering beneficial insects.
  • 40% of surveyed farmers found an increase in beneficial organisms on their farms since adopting organic practices.
  • Instead of harmful synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, organic cotton farmers are using cover crops like clover, rye and other crops as rotational crops, to manage soil nutrition, soilborne diseases, and pests.
  • Organic soil tends to be healthier – which can lead to climate change mitigation and the ability to adapt to extreme weather events like drought and floods.
  • Organic management can reduce water consumption in cotton. Many organic operations practice “dryland production” without irrigation, and of the organic growers surveyed in the study who use irrigation, many use technology to reduce water use, such as drip irrigation.
  • Instead of toxic synthetic defoliants (which are used in conventional production), organic producers use natural methods to mature cotton bolls, such as reducing water availability.
  • When it comes to cotton processing, organic processors certified to GOTS avoid the environmental footprint of toxic processing aids that are commonly used in conventional processing.
  • More research should focus on overcoming the challenges that organic growers and processors face, because organic cotton is an excellent environmental alternative to conventional production.