Cotton cooperative reaps rewards by growing organic

Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative bucks biotech cotton trend to capture fast-growing market

When describing the 7,000 acres of certified organic cotton grown by the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC), Terry Pepper, one of the cooperative's founders, jokingly calls it "a gnat in the ointment" among the three million acres of cotton grown on the plains of West Texas.

The description belies the cooperative's importance in a fast-growing industry. TOCMC is the U.S.'s largest supplier of certified organic cotton, a product found in a growing number of products from clothing to furniture and valued by sportswear companies such as Nike and Patagonia.

Found markets

In TOCMC's home in Lubbock, Texas, cotton is king. Here, Terry Pepper and his wife, LaRhea, farm 1400 acres, 1000 of which is cotton with 600 certified organic. In 1993, the Peppers and about 30 other farmers formed the cooperative to create a central source for certified cotton fiber.

As TOCMC's creative marketing force, LaRhea Pepper found and created market opportunities. She and Terry launched Cotton Plus, a joint venture with a cotton mill to produce organic cotton fabrics. In the mid-1990s, LaRhea started another company, Organic Essentials, that used cotton rejected by textile mills to make non-woven products, such as cotton balls, tampons, makeup rounds, and nursing pads. This business alone has grown 20% to 30% per year. "The business has grown itself," says Terry.

Growing demand

TOCMC primarily sells its production to textile mills that make fabrics and sell them to clothing manufacturers. "The demand is growing," says Terry Pepper. "Major companies want organic cotton." The increase in production reflects the demand. In 1991, a group of farmers produced 400 one-quarter ton bales. Today, TOCMC produces from 3,000 to 6,000 bales per year.

However, the market demand for organic cotton is about 4,000 bales. Still, Pepper sees major gains coming. Nike, for example, uses more and more organic cotton in its garments, and TOCMC is one of their major suppliers.

Non-GMO production

By producing organic, TOCMC bucked the conventional cotton trend: just one percent of cotton grown in the U.S. is organic. The cooperative bucked another trend: genetically engineered cotton. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, about 71% of the nation's 15 million cotton acres are now grown with genetically engineered varieties Roundup Ready and Bt.

According to Pepper, contamination from GM varieties through cross-pollination is not the problem as it is with corn. "Cotton doesn't cross-pollinate well, in fact it has a hard time cross-pollinating between rows," he says. Still, it does happen.

Contamination mainly occurs during seed processing. After harvest, cotton is sent to gins, which separate the seed from the fiber. The "fuzzy" seed goes to delinters where the remaining fiber is "delinted" leaving the seed.

To prevent seed contamination, TOCMC works with cotton gins and delinters who understand the need for separation of organic varieties. "It takes a team effort by everyone to maintain the separation," says Pepper. The gins and delinters must follow organic standards established by the Texas Department of Agriculture, which certifies TOCMC's production.

Pepper believes zero tolerance cannot be achieved with organic cotton. "GMO-free is not possible, but we can maintain non-GMO with some work," he says.GM material can be detected in cottonseed but not in the lint, says Pepper.

Herbicide drift a problem

According to Pepper, the biggest problem from GM cotton is herbicide drift. West Texas cotton producers plant mostly Roundup Ready varieties, and Pepper says spraying of Roundup is sometimes excessive with no consideration of neighbors' fields. Earlier this year, Pepper was planting cotton in a field when he noticed a crop duster spraying a neighbor's GM cotton with Roundup herbicide. "The wind was blowing straight at our field," says Pepper. The spray killed a buffer strip of oats as far as ½ mile away. Luckily the cotton had not yet sprouted. "It would have been killed across the field," says Pepper. "Too many people have an attitude of 'we can do what we want, this is no problem."

Are farmers spraying less Roundup with GM cotton as is promised by biotech proponents? No, says Pepper. "They are spraying lots of Roundup," he says. "The more GMOs that are grown, the more spraying is done."

Available seed

Another challenge is finding new varieties of non-GM seed. Fewer and larger seed companies who promote GM varieties increasingly control cottonseed. Luckily, TOCMC works with an independent seed company, Associated Farmers Delinting that provides new non-GM varieties. AFD tests its seed for GM content and uses a system of identity preservation to ensure its non-GM status. They also develop new non-GM varieties at Texas Tech University that Pepper says promise to improve quality, which he values. "AFD gives me security because I know they are working on better quality varieties that will help us," he says. In addition, TOCMC saves its own seed for replanting.

Does Pepper think his operation can coexist with biotech cotton? Yes, but the key is teamwork. "It will take local people who we know and trust and who will work with us," he says. "If we have a seed breeder, ginner, and delinter who understand what we need to do to maintain non-GM, we can do it."
(July 2002)