You may have noticed a significantly higher price tag on organic cotton products than on products made with conventional cotton. It is not the organic trend that drives this price, but the greater cost that comes from the risks associated with raising organic cotton.
Stanford University sites some of the difficulties farmers face when they transition from conventional cotton to organic practices. In order to be certified organic, farmers must farm without chemicals for three years. This ensures that the soil is free from chemicals used in the past. Cotton grown during this time is called transitional cotton. The crops are small because the soil has not yet recovered from its previous intensive use and the risks are high because the farmer is no longer using chemicals. However, this cotton does not receive the higher organic price in markets because it is not yet certified. Most farmers must take a loss for three years in order to switch from conventional to organic growing practices.
Weeds among organic cotton must be removed by hand. This takes much more manual labor than conventional cotton, that is sprayed with herbicide to remove weeds. Farmers of organic cotton must pay more people for labor per acre than farmers of conventional cotton.
Part of organic farming also means that crop success and failure is more dependent on the weather and other environmental factors such as pest infestations. Each year organic farmers are taking a greater risk than conventional cotton growers. In order for organic cotton to be viable, prices must be higher to account for the annual and seasonal crop loss.
According to the Organic Trade Association, only 1.1 percent of cotton grown worldwide is organic. While the cost is high for farmers to raise organic cotton, markets can make it worthwhile. As more consumers pay for more organic cotton, producers will demand more organic cotton from growers. This will make the risky transition to organic cotton profitable for growers. Even now, producers are working with growers to improve cotton raising practices and reduce the amount of resources used by cotton.
Monetary costs of organic cotton may be more for consumers, but the hidden costs of conventional cotton are high. Conventional cotton has high costs for human health and the environment.