Picking on cotton

Sustainable agriculture finds followers in enviro-friendly college consumers

TREND SETTER Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri teams up with Chico State to educate students and the community on the benefits of organic cotton and sustainable crops.

TREND SETTER Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri teams up with Chico State to educate students and the community on the benefits of organic cotton and sustainable crops.

Photo by Tom Angel

Earthy offerings: Miguel Altieri’s talk about cotton was only one of many events being held at Chico State University in recognition of Earth Month.

OK, so environmentalists have never been too hard to find on the Chico State University campus. But never before have they had such a huge impact on the college’s wardrobe.

After a two-year battle to get the Associated Students Bookstore to commission the sale of organic cotton T-shirts, a handful of nature-savvy students came together on April 10 to welcome University of California at Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri, and his philosophy known as agroecology, to help educate students on the benefits of using organic products.

As a professor of entomology at Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, the Chile-born Altieri has his work cut out for him. He is a firm believer in the profits of sustainable agriculture and the creation of crops to suit the complexities of modern farming.

He describes agroecology as “the science that studies agriculture from an ecological perspective.” Because agricultural systems are the product of the co-evolution of natural and social systems, he explains, agroecology also examines agriculture from a social and cultural perspective.

“In the end, agroecology is a set of ecological and social principles on how to design sustainable food systems,” he says.

These food systems include cotton crops, which not only contribute to garment manufacturing but many common food ingredients, such as cottonseed oil. The problem with cotton is that it is the No. 1 pesticide-using crop in the United States, accounting for about 25 percent of all pesticides used. Advocates of organic cotton production point out that pesticides pollute an already-sensitive environment.

This wasn’t new information to some students, who heard about the dirty truths of the chemical-laden crop about two years ago during a similar presentation given by Will Allen. Allen is the director of the Sustainable Cotton Project, an Oroville-based farming organization dedicated to the growing of sustainable cotton for a better, and healthier, future.

It was Allen initially who turned the students, particularly those involved in the Environmental Affairs Council, on to the notion that they should carry a line of special organic-cotton T-shirts in the A.S. Bookstore. The EAC worked diligently on the project, eventually teaming up with the clothing company Patagonia to produce four different 100 percent organic T-shirts bearing the collegiate logo.

The effort went well at first, says Tiffany Yost, vice president of business and finance for the A.S. and member of the EAC. The bookstore sold out of the four initial designs by January.

Shortly after that, Patagonia backed out of the deal because the company couldn’t meet the manufacturing and design needs specified by the A.S.

Steve Dubey, A.S. Bookstore director, said he hopes to find a new company in time for the fall term. Then, the education efforts will start anew.

“Not every student is aware of organic cotton and its benefits,” he said. “We have to let them know why we have it on campus.”

Yost, an environmentalist herself, worked on getting that first round of organic shirts into the store and hopes to see a broader line in the future. “Organic cotton is needed, it’s wanted, the demand is there. What I would particularly like to see is the big names like Champion using organic cotton in their products,” she said. Not only are these larger companies already familiar with the particular needs of collegiate apparel, but they have a reputation for quality that would boost sales.

Many of Yost’s coworkers on the original project were in attendance at Altieri’s lecture, including Katherine Polan, a recent Chico State graduate and now campus project coordinator for the Sustainable Cotton Project. Polan has been working with others to initiate the use of organic cotton in campus bookstores around the state.

“The goal of the project is to just instigate the conversation around sustainable agriculture,” Polan said. “We’re getting great support from the state system.”

Chico State started out as the only bookstore in the country even to look at a specifically organic clothing line, but others are following quickly in its footsteps, thanks to the work done by Polan and her crew.

Altieri is also working with other campuses to raise the awareness of the little-known environmental problems associated with cotton. "Organic cotton is an important initiative to put a major agricultural commodity on the path toward sustainability," he says. "Students promoting organic cotton T-shirts can enhance the awareness among consumers to pay attention to this new crop, and it creates local and eventually regional demand."