Chemical cotton

By Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations, United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI)

Did you know that every conventional cotton product we use has an effect on what we eat and that the by-products of conventional cotton production used in our clothing, personal care, bedding, furniture etc. go back into our food supply? Here are a few facts you need to know about cotton...

Cotton is considered the world's dirtiest crop due to its heavy use of pesticides. Aldicarb, cotton's second best-selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans and wildlife, is still used in 25 countries, including the U.S., where 16 states reported it in their groundwater. The dangers are recognized by the EPA and they have signaled its phase out in 2018.

Worldwide, cotton covers 2.5% of the cultivated land and cotton growers use 16% of the world’s pesticides. Eight of the top 10 pesticides most commonly used on U.S. conventionally produced cotton were classified as moderately to highly hazardous by the World Health Organization. The Environmental Justice Foundation elaborates more on the world wide negative effects of pesticide use in cotton.

Cotton (83%) is one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world which includes soy (89%), canola (75%) and corn (61%). GMO cotton production ranks ninth in global crop production.

On an average, 90 percent of U.S. cotton in 2010 was genetically engineered, according to a USDA survey. However 95 to 98% of all cotton is now genetically engineered in nine of the eleven cotton producing states surveyed. (Source USDA Economic Research Service, July 1, 2011.) The Huffington Post recently posted an excellent blog with more information and commentary on the issue.

Cotton in our food supply

Sixty five percent of conventional cotton production ends up in our food chain, directly through food oils or indirectly through the milk and meats of animals feeding on cotton seed meal and cotton gin by-products. The hazardous effect of conventional cotton in our food chain comes from GMO and Bt cotton by-products, which are generated from manufacturing non-food cotton products. These by-products are commonly known as “Gin Trash” which consists of cotton seed, stalk, leaves, burrs, twigs, dirt and everything else that are not used in cotton textile production. The “Gin Trash” is sold to food companies to undergo further processing to create cotton seed oil, additional additives and fillers in processed foods for  livestock feed, and soil compost mix. Additionally, the waste from the processing goes directly into our water supply.

Most consumers are not aware of the following facts about cotton as it affects our food:

•    Although cotton is not a food, cotton seed oil is produced for human consumption
•    Cottonseed oil is used to produce vitamin E
•    Cottonseed oil is the primary ingredient in Crisco
•    Cottonseed meal is fed to animals for dairy and meat production
•    Leftover cotton cellulose fibers that are too short to be spun into textiles are used as food additives
•    Cellulose from cotton fibers is added to a wide range of foods to thicken and stabilize the products
•    Cellulose is used as a filler to extend serving sizes without increasing calories. Humans can’t break down or digest cellulose so it’s being used to meet the demand for low-calorie, high-fiber foods
•    Cellulose, which is basically a plastic, has migrated into numerous foods including cheese, cream, milk powder, flavored milks, ice cream, sherbet, whey products, processed fruits, cooked vegetables, canned beans, pre-cooked pastas, pre-cooked rice products, vinegars, mustard, soups, cider, salads, yeast, seasonings, sweeteners, soybean products, bakery items, breakfast cereals, including rolled oats, sports drinks, and dietetic foods as a non-caloric filler
•    Some brands of pizza cheese consist of cellulose coated cheese granules combined with silicon to aid in melting

Your shopping choices make a difference!

When you shop for cotton clothing, socks, diapers, bedding, towels, mattresses etc. remember that "All Natural" cotton or "All Natural" fibers are not necessarily chemical-free or GMO free, because the processing of cotton textiles relies heavily on toxic and hazardous chemicals. Traces of these chemicals can remain in fabrics after washing and these chemicals can cause an array of health problems. "All natural" food and personal care products are not certified organic unless they carry the USDA seal. Read labels carefully to be sure that you are buying the highest standards in food, personal care and textile purity for the health of your family and the environment.

Our personal choice to support organic agriculture is crucial. The first priority is to start with organic foods and then shop organic 100% of the time for everyday products. Organic regulation and standards follow strict guidelines in the farming process to protect our health and the world's natural eco-system. As consumers, we can set the example by choosing certified organic for our food, clothing, and other cotton textile needs. Our shopping choices affect the cotton industry by increasing grower and manufacturer demand for pure, safe, organic products. The next time you are shopping for clothing, bedding, or personal care products, choose wisely and shop certified organic exclusively for your family's health and to protect the planet.

MelodyMeyerFinalMelody L. Meyer is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI). Her role is to help strengthen and promote healthy, sustainable and organic food production and consumption through education and advocacy. She also serves as the Executive Director for the UNFI Foundation. Melody is president of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association. She is a board trustee for The Organic Center and serves on the Organic Advisory Committee for the CA Department of Food and Agriculture. Melody has been in the organic food industry since 1976, when she began her career at an Iowa Natural Food Cooperative. She started her own business, “Source Organic,” in 1995, which was eventually acquired by Albert’s Organics / UNFI. Prior to her current role, Melody served as the VP of Global Initiatives at Albert’s Organics where she was deeply engaged in promoting and developing and Fair Trade and organic producers from around the world. Read more from Melody on her blog about everything organic at

North Carolina boosts organic cotton production with innovative collaboration. {READ MORE}

57 Responses to “Chemical cotton”

  1. Lynne Hazlip

    I would like to sew with 100% organic cotton, but I have not found a source. Help!

  2. Kim

    I live next to a cotton gin and have been subjected to the dust, filth, and debris blowing on my home for 11 yrs. the gin has tripled in size since we bought our home. The only home in the area. The original homeowners built the cotton gin. Nobody will help us. Our health is suffering. They have built a corporation around our home and work 24/7, it is maddening. There is no relief from the noise or the pollution. I was trying to figure out what poisons we were being subjected to because myself, my husband, and my son are all sick.

  3. Adele

    Fast forward to 2016: Hopefully you are now sewing with organic fabrics! If not, and for those looking to, search online for ” organic fabric” and several sites ought to show up. Happy sewing!

  4. Sheridan


    I know this is a couple of years later and I’m sure you’ve found a source to buy organic cotton by now, but also sells loads of organic cotton.


  5. Timmy

    I found three (whole) colors of organic cotton at Joann(‘s) Fabrics! If your local one doesn’t have any, perhaps they can special order some.

  6. RANCE

    Moving would solve your problem. Don’t curse the dark, light a candle.

  7. Joe

    We only manufacture our product with organic cotton, due to all the hazards accompanied with conventionally grown cotton. I wish there were more local suppliers and manufacturers so we didn’t have to import from China. Would love to receive names of local organic cotton bedding and clothing manufacturers.
    Joe, Owner
    My Little North Star

  8. Julie

    Sewing with organic cotton is easier than ever. I personally took on the task of bringing organic cotton sewing thread to the world market several years ago and I now have three brands of organic cotton thread available. Check my website to find retailers. Let’s clean up the world’s cotton industry!

  9. Rod

    There is a company in Thailand called Green Cotton which sells organic cotton clothes, mostly unbleached and undyed. I have been buying my underwear there for years. They have a website ( and will sell overseas by mail.


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