Hemp clothes: ease the threat of water and ecosystem deterioration


 Cotton in the middle of ecological debates

Cotton is the main textile fiber in the world. This one has been cultivated by man for more than 5000 years. At present, cotton is in the middle of ecological debates as this one is submitted to intensive farming and contributes greatly to soil pollution. The culture and manufacture of cotton uses toxic chemicals such chlorine bleaches, heavy-metal dyes and the ones contained in pesticides.

Pollution caused by intensive farming of cotton

Cotton crops use high quantities of pesticides (1). Pesticides are a mixture of chemical compounds which are used on crops to repel and kill insects. 99 % of the pesticides applied on cotton crops are released into water bodies and the atmosphere, resulting in soil, water and atmospheric pollution (2).

In addition to high quantities of pesticide application on crops, plastic mulch is used to suppress weed and conserve water in the crop to improve productivity. This is done by applying plastic films on cotton crops.

In China, studies have found that 20-25% of plastic film residues remain in the soil (3;4). Plastic film residues are not easily biodegradable and can remain in the soil from 200 to 400 years (5). These residues impair the health of the soil and therefore impair agricultural sustainability of future crops (6). A study directed by Jiang (7) found that the yield of plants harvested in crops affected by plastic film pollution was decreased by up to 21.6%.

Lastly, fertilizers are used in order to increase the production of a crop. Fertilizers are made of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, these are important plant nutrients which are essential to their growth. Cotton crops, use nitrogen fertilizers. However, its overabundance caused by external application has been shown to decrease the uptake of other essential nutrients and impairing the quality of the soil by modifying its structure (8). As a result, the application of nitrogen fertilizers are unsustainable.

To resume, the cotton industry is a big contributor to pesticide, plastic and fertilizer pollution. In addition, its manufacture also uses toxic chemicals which run off in the environment degrading ecosystems. It is not only an environmental problem: many farmers of cotton crops suffer health problems from spraying pesticides on the crops (9,10).

Bt cotton: a good alternative?

Cotton was genetically modified to produce the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) encoding proteins which produce toxins that are repellent to many insects. Bt cotton can reduce pesticide use. However, the results from different studies have been mitigated.  Studies have shown that farmers using Bt cotton in China continue using excessive quantities of pesticides (11).  This is due to the lack of knowledge from farmers on pesticide use. Farmers need to be better informed, and this job is not always well done. According to a study by Chen (12), improving farmer’s awareness could potentially reduce pesticide use by 10 to 15%. The situation is similar in South Africa (13) and Mexico (14) .Therefore, the usefulness of Bt cotton can be argued.

Hemp: an organic fabric

5000 years ago Cannabis sativa was used as a food and cloth source. However, in the 20th century the use of the plant declined as it became banned by many Countries because of its use as a drug.

In the middle of the ecological crisis, hemp as cloth is coming back. The culture of hemp for textile is ecologically beneficial, it requires no or low quantities of pesticides.

In addition, it improves the quality of the soil. Retting, which is a process where microorganisms break down the lignin and pectin to bind fiber together is commonly carried out on field. During field retting, the stems are harvested and then let to rest in the field for 2 to 6 weeks.The leaves and root remains increase the soil fertility by providing nutrients to the following crops (15).

Another quality of hemp is that it consumes much less water than other conventional crops (16).

Finally, hemp clothes are better quality and more durable than cotton clothes.

If you want to support our free scientific magazine, why don’t you visit our hemp textile collection, hand crafted in Italy? 

Cotton vs Hemp  –  ecological criteria’s

Culture-Requires high input of pesticides
-Plastic mulch commonly practiced to increase productivity
-High input of Nitrogen fertilizers
-Uses a lot water
-Uses many toxic chemicals during manufacture
-Does not use much water
-Low input of pesticides
-Field retting improves the quality of the soil
Consequences-Decrease of biodiversity
-Water pollution
-Degradation of ecosystems
-Environmentally sustainable

To conclude, the culture of cotton requires many agrochemicals and consumes important quantities of water.

In the 21st century chemical pollution needs to be minimized in order to prevent further degradation of ecosystems, therefore consuming cotton products is not ethical. The creation of bt cotton has not yielded positive results  in decreasing pesticide use in China, Mexico and South Africa.

Organic cotton is an alternative. However, cotton uses a lot of water in order to grow and therefore hemp is more interesting for cultivation when considering that resources need to be carefully used.

There would be great environmental benefits if the textile industry moved to hemp production.

You are informed, you, as a consumer, guide the direction the big industries take.

Sadly, there will be no great changes if the demand for hemp does not grow because industries are economically driven rather than environmentally driven, they reply to the consumer’s demand; it’s up to US  making all of these choices when we are buying products!

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(1) K.M. Wu and Y.Y. Guo. The evolution of cotton pest management practices in China. Annu. Rev. Ent., 50 (2005), pp. 31-52.
(2) W.J. Zhang et al. Global pesticide consumption and pollution: with China as a focus. P. Int. Acad. Ecol. Env. Sci. 1 (2011), pp 125-144.
(3) J. Xiao and J.B. Zhao. Farmland plastic film pollution and its countermeasures. Sichuan Environ. 24 (2005), pp. 102-105.
(4) R.Z.Mao et al. The eco-environmental effects of photodegradable film in cotton field. Res Agr. Modern. 18 (1997), pp 116-119 (in Chinese).
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(7) Y.J. Jiang et al. Effects of remnant plastic film in soil on growth and yield of cotton. Agro-Envrion. Prot, 20 (2001), pp 177-178 (in Chinese, with English abstract).
(8) J.S. Zhang et al. Research on control mechanism of high yielding culture for cotton with LDE. J. Xinjiang Agri. Univ., 22 (1999), pp.283-288 (in Chinese, with English abstract).
(9) M. Maumbe. Hidden health costs of pesticide use in Zimbabwe’s smallholder cotton growers. Social science and Medicine, 157.,9 (2003), pp. 1559-1571.
(10) A. Moustafa. Adverse biochemical effects of various pesticides on sprayers of cotton field in El-Behira Governorate. Egypt-Biomedicine and aging pathology (2014).
(11) M. Elaine. Risk preference and pesticide use by cotton farmers in China. Journal of Development Economics, 103 (2013), pp. 202-215.
(12) R. Chen. Farmer’s knowledge on pest management and pesticide use in Bt cotton production in China. China Economic Review 27 (2013), pp. 15-24.
(13) Y. Ismael. Smallholder adoption and economic impacts of Bt cotton in the Makhathini Flats, Republic of South Africa. Report of DFID Natural Resources Policy Research Programme, Project R7946. London, UK: Department for International Development (2001).
(14) G. Traxler. Transgenic Cotton in Mexico: Economic and Environmental Impacts. Unpublished report. Auburn, AL: Department of Agriculture Economics, Auburn University.
(15) I. Bocsa, I., M. Karus. Cultivation of hemp: botany, varieties, cultivation and harvesting (1998).
(16) P. Ranalli. Hemp as a raw material for industrial applications-Euphytica, 140:1

Caroline Balloux

Caroline Balloux (BSc (Hons) Biology) is a collaborator to the website. ‘In my search to find something that would interest me, I discovered Biology. Some of us try to find ourselves through that which we study. I personally feel that learning about the evolution of life has brought me answers on a philosophical level. Sitting behind the computer screen reading scientific research papers, I realized that outside the environmental problem is real. I now want to be involved and share the knowledge I got in order to inform people about the impact their consumption pattern is having.’ Caroline is currently advancing her studies with a MSc in sustainable agriculture of smallholder farming systems in the tropics at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and is involved with permaculture facilities throughout France.

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