Our exploration into organic cotton growing continues. As we brainstorm, discuss, research, and learn all there is to know about growing our own organic cotton, we decided that the best place to begin is with a study of the seeds themselves. So this week Erin–who is new to our studio – dug in deep to learn more about seed supply and just how to find those organic seeds. Here are some of her reflections and discoveries:
As of late, I feel especially inspired during my evening drives home from work. These drives take me on two long stretches of highway that are sandwiched between tracts of farmland as far as you can see. These farms, which are home to many hard-working families, produce a variety of crops–often times cotton.
On this particular day, I recount the light from the setting sun as it illuminates the fields. I notice the fields are weed-ridden, ready to be cleared and cultivated. Because of the work I’ve been doing at Alabama Chanin, I think about the land differently. I’ve always seen beauty in the land, perhaps now more than ever; but, these days I’m more aware of the difficulties that come with growing crops. I now know that certain farming practices compromise the purity of the land and its resources. A year ago I drove this same road and never thought otherwise. Now I am more informed, very curious, and thirsty for knowledge.
This new awareness has been encouraged by conversations with compassionate people in the organic cotton industry. My research has provided me with mere facts and information. My discussions with farmers, academics, and industry leaders have leant compassion and heart to those statistics.
This week, we will begin sharing some of what I have learned about growing organic cotton. In the weeks to come, we will invite experts to join the conversation.
The facts about growing organic cotton can be complex and difficult to parse. In basic terms, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) governs the National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP enforces the requirements that must be met in order to be certified as an organic grower. This means that farms must use organically grown seeds, or plantings grown from organic seeds. No genetically modified (GMO) seeds may be used.
Liesl Truscott, Farm Engagement Director at Textile Exchange, explains a benefit of using organic seeds. “Non-GM seeds allow farmers to save seed and multiply themselves or within networks of breeder-farm initiatives.” This allows farmers to control their own seed supply and increase the number of seeds available to plant.
The uncomfortable truth is that genetically modified cottonseed can destroy agricultural bio-diversity by creating a homogenous product. It is easy to understand why many farmers choose to use GMO seeds: these products are readily available, often times appear to be less costly, and more easily manage insects. Organic cottonseed can increase agricultural diversity by preserving local varieties or rare and endangered cotton. Organic cotton can also help “feed the world” by helping farmers grow additional (food) crops. It encourages a culture of food production because organic cotton farm systems depend on a variety of crops for soil fertility.
With the many benefits of growing organic cotton, I was surprised to learn that farmers across the world have difficulty sourcing enough high quality non-GM cottonseeds for production planting. How are we to encourage use of organic cottonseed, when the seeds themselves are becoming scarce?
In an attempt to increase the availability of non GM seeds, Jane Dever at Texas AgriLife Research continues to research this issue, while seed banking movements in India have been picking up speed over the past two decades, and early seed multiplication projects develop worldwide. While these efforts are encouraging, there remains a need for funding and support of these initiatives.
And so we begin to learn about seeds. If you have more information, please share it with us in the comments section. If you know a source for organic cotton seed suitable for the climate in North Alabama, let us know. It feels a bit like the search for magic beans…
Additional Reading List: