Organic cotton ‘fraud’

Perhaps you caught the story alleging H&M used genetically modified cotton from India in their certified organic products. The story was published in the German edition of the Financial Times last Friday. Via Ecotextile News:

The scale of the alleged fraud uncovered by the German edition of the Financial Times newspaper is shocking – if it’s accurate. Lothar Kruse, a director of the independent testing laboratory Impetus in Bremerhaven, who examined the cotton fabrics claimed around “30% of the tested samples” contained genetically modified (GM) cotton. The head of the Indian agricultural authority, Apeda, Sanjay Dave, told the newspaper they were dealing with fraud on “a gigantic scale.”

Yesterday, Organic Exchange, responsible for certifying the two suppliers, published a press release dismissing these charges saying in part:

According to LaRhea Pepper, OE Senior Director and one of the world’s organic cotton production experts, organic cotton production standards specifically prohibit the use of GMO material. When a crop is grown organically, it means that the farmer has followed all the principles and systems of organic farming. In some cases, a very small amount of contamination may occur due to factors outside of the farmer’s control such as cross-pollination from GMO crops that may be growing in other fields away from organic cotton. Organic cotton certifiers conduct tests on plant, seed or soil to ensure that any pesticide residues and/or GMO’s are below a fine “tolerance” level and do not indicate deliberate fraud or carelessness on the part of the farmer. If there is any contamination of GMO material in certified organic cotton, it would likely be the result of pollination from GMO cotton plants or contamination in the gins or mills where cotton products are produced.

H&M also denies the allegations.

No one really knows the truth of it but there have been long standing assertions in the sustainability community that there are many questionable suppliers. Call it supplier greenwashing or fraud but the output of what is purported to be organic cotton, far exceeds the quantity of organic cotton production. In the end, increasing your demands for transparency in your supply chain is the only possible remedy. The obvious sticking point is being able to verify your suppliers. If H&M’s sourcing section has been fooled, it is difficult for a small entrepreneur -lacking those considerable resources- to be certain one’s suppliers are organic. Hopefully this won’t cause a crisis of confidence amongst consumers.

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25 comments

  1. birdie says:

    WOW! Another score for H&M after that whole “one of our NY stores shreds clothing that could be donated” thing.

    It’s amazing how many consumers (and retailers/producers/etc) are completely unaware of where their source material comes from, and how it was produced. (Bamboo springs to mind right away…)

  2. Brian says:

    This is totally irritating.. I’ve purchased organic cotton before and wondered about how legit the certification really is. I can understand if it all cost the same but you pay a premium for this stuff. Of course it’s the same issue with food. Until they have the do it yourself home organic test kit there really is no certainty at the consumer level. Do we just keep blindly buying organic driving up the price therefore making it that much more lucrative to fake the status?

    Maybe I should switch back to rayon, at least there I know the truth.

  3. AJ says:

    This is really unfortunate for H&M. They can’t be expected to independently test every batch of fabric they get to check if it is organic or not but the consumer public will not see it that way….especially after the whole fiasco last month where it was revealed that they destroy clothes that don’t sell. They are not in favour at the moment.

  4. As spelled out in U.S. national organic standards, the use of genetic engineering (GE) is prohibited in organic agricultural practices. Thus, organic farmers growing cotton cannot use GE seed in their production.

    However, evidence is mounting that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from GE crops often show up where they were never used. Contamination is a real threat. As long as GE crops are allowed, organic producers, at the very least, are at risk from background levels of GMOS. Cultivation of GE crops on nearby farms can contaminate organic crops via pollen drift, via insects and bees, or via seed contamination.

    The truth is that organic agriculture exists in a world where certain crops, like cotton, are becoming dominated by GE production. This has led to questions over who should be liable when GE contaminates an organic crop. It can be argued that this should fall in the domain of the owner of the GE crop, rather than the organic one. However, there are no safeguards in place at this point.

    For organic agricultural crops used in making apparel and other fiber-based non-food products, certification to the U.S. National Organic Program indicates to retailers and consumers that genetic engineering has not been allowed in the production stage.

    However, to ensure organic integrity, it is critical that the entire supply chain, from farm through the finished products, be controlled. And that leads to the importance of standards covering the processing of organic cotton into apparel and other products.

    Such a standard exists. It is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). The Organic Trade Association is part of the International Working Group that helped develop GOTS. GOTS provides a standard to which companies can become certified to cover their processing practices for finished organic fiber products.

    Today, more than ever, it is important not only to follow national organic standards for crop production to safeguard the organic integrity of a fiber crop like cotton, but also to then become certified to GOTS to ensure that organic integrity is reflected in the finished product.

  5. Harmony says:

    Here’s a new article that actually spoke to the lab that has been referenced in the “fraud”: http://www.ecotextile.com/news_details.php?id=10090
    My personal opinion is that this sort of discovery means the system is working. There are checks and balances and they are uncovering issues where they exist so we can work to improve them. I hope this over-reaction/misleading “news” does not hurt the people who have been pushing to have textiles created in a more thoughtful way. It isn’t perfect… but it is a step in the right direction — in my opinion.

  6. Naresh Shinde says:

    The same type of fraud also happening with FLO Cert GmbH certified Fair Trade Cotton Textiles. As per their rules they are also prohibits the GMO cotton but approxmately 90% of their certified cotton is GMO cotton.
    Beside that their auditor/inspector also involve in many curruption & bribe cases. Some part of Premium paid to producer Organisation has to be paid to FLO Cert GmbH auditor & inspector as a bribe to continue the certification toherwise they create situation in which Producer Organisation get decertified.

  7. Tula says:

    I don’t get all the hysteria over GMO products. Most of the genetic engineering is designed to make the plants hardier and more resistant to drought and pests, which would help diminish the use of pesticides and reduce water requirements. This seems like a good thing, IMHO. I’m not opposed to the idea of organic growing, since pesticides are nasty stuff, but I really don’t see why GMO should be an issue. It seems like people freak out needlessly when they hear “genetic engineering”. It’s not a bunch of mad scientists looking to create mutant monsters; they’re just people looking to improve crop yield and reduce the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

  8. Brina says:

    Before big agro took over the dissemination of seeds, many traditional varieties of plants were breed to be resistant to insects and drought–some plant naturally have these qualities. So you don’t need GM to get these qualities. GM came about because of many of these qualities were breed out of plants, so now what to do? Go back to traditionals? NO-oh.

    One of the problems I have with GM is that one really doesn’t know what the health risks are when you take a gene from a tobacco plant and put into, I don’t know, corn. I don’t really want to be eating tobacco or other things that I might not want to eat, or that I might be allergic to. or that I might have an ethical, religious or other reason for not eating. With GM, I can’t make those kinds of choices, because I won’t really know what is in my food or other plant based products I use. And GM forces gene combinations that would not be possible in nature–humans already do enough messing with the natural order of things to go that far.

  9. Tula says:

    I suppose it’s the scientist in me that just doesn’t see GM as a problem. I don’t believe that just because something is done in a lab instead of out in nature that it’s inherently bad. I owe a lot to modern science. I couldn’t get out of bed each day without the medications that keep my arthritis under control. I’d happily submit myself to genetic modification/gene therapy if it would fix my problems, so I just don’t see it as a big deal in agriculture. It’s probably just my perspective on it as a scientist, but I have confidence in these kinds of processes and in the scientific method. Most of us in the sciences are ethical and would never do anything that causes harm. Sure, there are some who sacrifice their ethics for the almighty buck, but that’s a very tiny fraction of the total.

    I’ve had people try to convince me that all drugs are evil because they’re “not natural” and I should give them all up and follow some weird diet or pray to some invisible entity or eat some magic berries and all my health problems will go away. It’s all hogwash. Science is not evil. These same people are not likely to give up their cell phones and televisions and go back to living in caves, so it just bugs me that they think they know better than scientists who have devoted their lives to studying these things. Trust me, if any of those things actually worked, everyone would be doing it.

    Sorry for the rant, it just bugs me when people blame science for everything bad. It’s like the militant vegans who blame all the world’s ills on meat-eating. We scientists do a lot of good for the world.

  10. Brian says:

    The thing about GMO that is most disturbing is the process in which the genes are actually combined. The most successful way to combine genetics from two separate organisms is using bacteria or viruses to “infect” the DNA of one with another. How much of the virus’s DNA remains? How will our immune systems be affected by genetic markers of various pathogens in almost all the food we eat? For now no one can tell you for certain.

    An excellent way to keep a population compliant is by providing inexpensive calories. I don’t think it’s even possible for the US to stop producing food using GMOs…

  11. Anir says:

    Tula

    Well, I have a chronic health condition as well and I tried conventional medicine treatments ie: drugs, and they did no good, so i went the alternative/complementary way. It’s working for me. I, like you, wouldn’t want to get out of bed because of the pain if it were not for the supplements I take, the exercise I do and the diet I follow. However, just because it works for me, does not mean it will work for you. If meds give you quality of life I say go for it. After all most medicines are synthesized from some naturally occurring substance anyway. But I still don’t want to eat tomatoes that have pig genes in them.

    There’s a false dichotomy in putting things into either a “scientific” and a “natural” category. After all conventional breeding of plants and animals is science. There is plenty of stuff that is presented or passes for science that is kablooie, just like plenty of “natural” stuff is not that at all.

  12. Paul says:

    If a virus is being used in gene splicing, there is should not be any concern about viral DNA “infecting” the process. Viruses do not contain DNA; they contain RNA and the machinery for making more RNA using the host cell it infects. I too wonder about all the fuss over GM plants especially when you consider the older methods of selective breeding. You don’t think selective breeding is genetic modification? What would you call it?

    Now one of the things that has given GM a bad name is the use of GM to allow the use of herbicides and pesticides that will not kill the crop, but will kill everything else. To me this is a waste of a valuabe resource. Instead GM should be used to reduce the need for chemical useage not in making plant resistant to the chemicals. Then you have the other issue in which GM is used to make the second generation of seeds sterile and the farmer then has to buy more seed, etc.

    Few realize that some of the food crops we enjoy would not exist if it were not for selective breeding. Thousands of years ago corn as we know it was a grass; bred to become maize and then further selectively breed to become the yellow corn most of us eat in some form or another.

    No matter how you slice it, selective breeding is GM. If it isn’t GM then what is it? I always thought “organic” referred to the way something was grown and produced, not in the way its genes or genetic structure had been modified.

  13. Kathleen says:

    Paul: I can’t speak to many of your points, not having the science grounding but I can say that many people are also very concerned about selective breeding of plants and food crops. The commercialization of food production selectively favors stocks with given features (tomatoes are being bred to be more square shaped to facilitate shipping but the flavor isn’t so great) at the expense of unique and richer flavors inherent in less fashionable fruits and vegetables which are dying out -mostly because they aren’t as easy to store, ship and process commercially. Concern over selective breeding has given rise to the heritage/heirloom seed movement, to prevent these plants from being removed from the eco-system. There were hundreds of apple varieties but today, it’s nigh impossible to find more than 5 at the grocery store at the height of apple season.

    True, people have been selectively breeding plants for centuries but we often come to regret it. Take cotton for example. Cotton used to grow naturally in no less than 12 different colors. If you had seed for red or blue cotton, you could retire and live comfortably the rest of your life.

  14. Paul says:

    I do agree whole heartedly with all of your concerns. In fact there is a great organization that keeps track of such developments. It is called GRAIN (www.grain.org).
    I remember some work done in the mid 90’s in regard to naturally green and blue cotton. Until I read about it I did not know it ever existed. More than likely the genes are still in the cotton to produce the other colors; just suppressed from breeding. Kinda like dogs; all came from one variety of wolf and through breeding we have the huge variety – though some are not good at all.

  15. rallyround says:

    Tula are you familiar with these studies?
    http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GMCropsFacingMeltdown.php
    The organic market has been booming in the United States despite the economic downturn. According to a new report from the US Department of Agriculture, retail sales of organic food went up to $21.1 billion in 2008 from $3.6 billion in 1997 [23] (see Fig. 1). The market is so active that organic farms have struggled at times to produce sufficient supply to keep up with the rapid growth in consumer demand, leading to periodic shortages of organic products.
    Most relevant for US farmers is a study by Kathleen Delate of Iowa State University and Cynthia A. Cambardella of the US Department of Agriculture assessing the performance of farms during the three-year transition it takes to switch from conventional to certified organic production [26]. The experiment lasting four years (three years transition and first year organic) showed that although yields dropped initially, they equalized in the third year, and by the fourth year, the organic yields were ahead of the conventional for both soybean and corn.

    Our report [25] also documents the enormous potential for reducing greenhouse emissions – even to the extent of freeing us entirely from fossil fuels – through organic agriculture and localised food (and renewable energy) systems. It is a unique combination of the latest scientific analyses, case studies of farmer-led research, and especially farmers’ own experiences and innovations that often confound academic scientists wedded to outmoded and obsolete theories, of which GM technology is one glaring example.
    The truth is that there are no GM crops that grow in hardy areas. These are still pipedreams like using a gene from a cockroach so that humans will survive global warming.

  16. Paul says:

    Nice information. Not sure how organic farming will free us entirely from fossil fuels – maybe you can explain? If you all will pardon me while I explain something of which most people are unaware – this may be off the subject a bit. How much of a contribution do humans make to the CO2 in the atmosphere on an annual basis compared to naturally occurring sources?

    1. volcanic activity is the greatest source estimated at more than 500Giga tons/year most of it unseen because it happens in the ocean

    2. Forests, soil activity, rotting vegetation, falling leaves, etc. @150Gigatons/year

    3. All of man’s activities fuel useage 6.5 Gigatons/year

    Much has been written about the oceans pH becoming more acidic from increasing CO2, but that actually makes no sense because the oceans only absorb CO2 when they are cooling. So if the oceans are absorbing CO2 then the earth is actually cooling not warming.

    Consider this, the climate on earth is always changing and has changed dramatically in the past without any help from us. Man’s contribution to the total CO2 in the atmosphere is at 0.04%. In the past CO2 levels have changed only when the earth’s temperature has changed. Not the other way around. CO2 changes lag temperature changes. The temperature increases and then CO2 levels rise with a lag of about 200 to 300 years. That is what the ice core records show. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth is that CO2 does not drive temperature change – temperature change drives the change in CO2 levels.

    Where do you think the temperature change comes from?
    Look up in the sky – latest reports are that the atmosphere is actually cooling, not warming – a decrease of water vapor in the stratosphere has caused this cooling. So what might the greatest green house be? If you guessed water vapor, you are spot on.

    One of the nice things about increased atmospheric CO2 is that our food crops will grow in places where it was too dry to grow things like corn and wheat before, without increasing irrigation. If CO2 is really a pollutant as the EPA has designated it, remember that ever living thing on the earth gives off CO2 and we are literally made from building blocks that incorporate CO2. Your bones and teeth contain calcium carbonate which is made from calcium and CO2.

    Thanks for letting me tell this and I will confine myself more directly to the subject at hand in the future.

  17. Paul says:

    Tula – I think I read some where that if GM plants were left to grow wild they would soon revert. It seems logical, unless they were sterile or produce sterile seed like many of the new rice varieties that are grown all over the world.

  18. Kathleen says:

    Is any research being done to bring back the naturally colored cottons?

    Mansanto has been working on blue for years. Sally Fox (FoxFibre) has green and brown. There’s another version of green native to North America called ‘tennessee green’, not very stable (cotton we use is native to Central & South America). These are mentioned and linked to in my cotton gin post.

    I’ve seen green and brown growing in the field. The green plant looks very different from usual and it’s smaller and more fibrous. The brown cotton is beautiful in the field. It looks *exactly* like bunches of little baby bunnies nestled amongst the green plant. You’d never think of growing cotton as cute but brown is.

  19. Paul says:

    Is Sally Fox from Texas? She must be the one I read about back around 1995. I though she had the blue cotton too. I think I read too that as the fabric is washed the color gets better, unlike dyed goods.

  20. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    There are a lot of seed saver groups. Apparently this is really popular in Russia. If you look at one of the Territorial Seed Company catalogs, it has several varieties of usually heirloom tomatoes that come from Russia. Also, TSC has tons of info about all the seeds and plants they sell and tell you which are more disease resistant, drought tolerant, etc. If you garden, try using raised beds. While many garden plants are hybrids, to me that seems to be better than GMO. Hybrid plants are just crossed with each other or something related like peach + plum = nectarine. GMO can introduce something unrelated or animal into plant…that seems scary. I’ve seen samples of the green and brown cottons; they’re pretty.

  21. rallyround says:

    Our scientific knowledge and technological power soars up the steep part of an exponential curve even as the health of our natural resources has entered a breathtaking decline. This is no coincidence.
    Some would argue that population growth, similarly exponential, accounts for the resource decline. The case of the United States disproves this. America’s technology sets the pace for the rest of the world, yet millions of acres, in areas where her population has always been lowest and is declining, are desertifying at a rate that is compararble to the worst I have experienced in Africa.
    Texas is privately owned land, the owners take a pride in in their ownership, however the animals have been removed from the land. I counted a total of 35 in a 300 mile flight. There are no animals on the land (due to official destocking policy) but there are millions in factory feedlots. There are more people in jail in Texas than there are individual farmers. Yet Texas is desertifying faster than in Africa where overgrazing is blamed.
    Listen to Alan Savory talking at Colorado College.
    http://www.coloradocollege.edu/news_events/audio/allansavory.m3u

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