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How wrong is a piece of string?

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Whether we know it or not, cotton plays a big part in all our lives. There is a good chance that you will be wearing some cotton threads as you read this – perhaps a cotton t-shirt or a pair of jeans? We wear it all the time, but how many of us know where it comes from and how it’s produced?

For those who have never seen cotton fields before, it can be surprising to see the fluffy white balls of ‘cotton wool’ growing on plants. Known as ‘bolls’, these are in fact a protective casing for the plant’s seeds and once upon a time would have been small and light enough to blow or tumble in the wind, helping the plants disperse their seeds. Today’s cotton plants bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors; they have been bred for millennia to increase the strength and size of the valuable fibres that we use to make cotton textiles.

Cotton Field

It is estimated that cotton is now used to produce 50% of the world’s clothing. Clothing is not the only use for cotton though – it can be used to make many things, including string. And that includes the string that we use in our herbal teas. Every bag of Pukka tea that you dip in a cup contains 20cm of cotton string, which adds up to a lot of string. In fact, if we tied together all the string that we use in a year it would be long enough to stretch around the world two and a half times.

So for us it is vital that we use cotton that is ethically and sustainably grown. Most importantly it needs to be organic.

Cotton is notorious for its reliance on pesticides. In India, where our cotton is grown, it accounts for 54% of all pesticides, despite occupying just 5% of all land under crops. The effects are devastating to the health of people and all other forms of life in the environment.

In the last decade or so, the story has become more complex with the introduction of genetically modified BT cotton. Without going into the gory details, BT cotton is a variety that contain the genes of a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, which is toxic to certain groups of insects. In other words, if the insect nibbles on the plant, it dies. This puts ardent opponents of GM (like us) in an awkward position; its widespread adoption in India has actually led to a massive reduction in the use of insecticides – which can only be a good thing. Or is it?

Not necessarily. The bugs are fighting back. Within less than ten years the insects that BT cotton were supposed to be targeting have started to develop resistance. In some regions of India – including parts of Gujarat, where our cotton is grown – BT cotton farmers have actually increased their use of pesticides. Costs of production have rocketed as yields have started to decline. This has led to growing cases of debt and debt-related farmer suicides.

We believe organic farming is the only long-term solution. By relying on ecological farming systems that use a combination of organic practices, such as intercropping, crop rotations, organic soil management and organic pesticides (using locally available low-cost ingredients such as neem), organic farmers have demonstrated that high-yielding cotton can be grown perfectly well without pesticides.

By buying certified organic cotton, we can all play an important role in encouraging more farmers to adopt organic methods. For us at Pukka, by using certified organic cotton, not only can we support the noble efforts of hard-working organic farmers, we can also make sure that there’s definitely nothing at all wrong about the string in your tea bags!

Meet the author

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Ben Heron, Sustainable Herbs Manager

My main responsibility at Pukka is to make sure the herbs we source are Pukka – in other words, that they are grown, collected and processed in ways that meet our sustainability, quality and Fair for Life standards. This means that I spend a lot of time visiting and working with our suppliers, and am often behind the camera taking photos and videos for the website. With a background in plant conservation, I am passionate about driving Pukka’s vision of ‘conservation through commerce’.

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