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Will Wal-Mart's organic cotton save the planet?

By Dennis T. and Alex A. Avery
web posted June 19, 2006

Will Wal-Mart's sales of organic cotton garments save the environment?

Walmart recently sold 190,000 yoga outfits made from organic cotton through its Sam's Club stores. The Organic Exchange cheered, and announced that Wal-Mart had just saved the planet's 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 pesticide -- rather than 500,000. But what's 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.)

What's 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 Earth's 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 world's 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 isn't even pests, but the lack of nitrogen to nourish the plant roots. U.S. farmers take their nitrogen from an inexhaustible source -- the air, which is 78 percent N. For some mysterious reason, organic farming's rules forbid the nitrogen fertilizer that encourages higher yields.

Virtually all of the world's wildlife is in the wildlands were we don't farm. It's 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 isn't.

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 doesn't 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 "biotech crops don't yield more."

Wrong again. China has a new biotech cotton variety that yields 25 percent more fiber per acre than conventional cotton. Given China's huge cotton plantings, that will save 3 million acres of farmland for food crops -- which 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, they'd be up for a Nobel Prize.

Why doesn't the Organic Exchange factor high crop yields into their environmental tally sheet? Why doesn't Wal-Mart?

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for the Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Alex A. Avery is the Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues. Readers may write them at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.

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