With the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States, new concepts of “alternative facts” in a “post-truth” environment spread through “fake news” are entering our lexicon. Some people think this “post-truth” environment is something new, but alternative facts are nothing new for those who demonize cotton. The Textile Exchange, the World Wildlife Fund and others have been providing alternative facts about cotton for decades. The only thing new with the inauguration of president Trump is that a label has been given to this “post-truth” universe. The TE, the WWF and President Trump have more in common than either probably care to admit.
What the Textile Exchange, and The World Wildlife Fund, and Others
Have in Common with President Trump
On page 7 of its Annual Report 2015, issued in late 2016, The Textile Exchange (TE) claims, “25% of all pesticides used worldwide are used on conventional cotton,” and organic cotton uses “zero toxic pesticides.”
The allegation that cotton accounts for 25% of all pesticides used in the world has been so thoroughly debunked, so often disproved and so repeatedly corrected, that its continued circulation by a supposedly reputable agency like the TE can only be attributed to willful fraud combined with self-delusion in defense of self-interest.
The claim that no toxic pesticides are used in organic production systems is an alternative fact if ever there was one. Many pesticides certified in organic agricultural production systems are highly toxic (https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~lhom/organictext.html); if you believe otherwise, try exposing yourself to a bit of Copper sulfate, maybe with a side helping of Peracetic acid or a dollop of a Chlorine dioxide. If pesticides, organic or otherwise, were not toxic they would not be effective; to claim that no toxic pesticides are used in organic production systems is stupid.
Following his election in November, at about the same time that the TE released its annual report, Donald Trump claimed he won in a landslide when he lost the popular vote by 2.9 million. The preposterous assertion that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast is justified in Trump’s mind because it conforms to his long-standing belief in himself. Likewise, the allegations that cotton accounts for 25% of world pesticide use and that organic production systems are benign conform to belief in alternative facts by organic enthusiasts, not objective reality.
A brochure distributed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at its trade booth at the 75th International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) Plenary Meeting in Faisalabad (Better Cotton Projects of WWF-Pakistan) in November, just one week prior to the U.S. election, overstated pesticide use in cotton production by factors of approximately 100%. The brochure alleged that crop protection chemicals are persistent in the food chain and are absorbed in human bodies, which is not true, all commercial pesticides legally used are non-persistent. The World Health Organization does not even allow the use of DDT (a persistent pesticide banned in the 1970s) in mosquito nets, let alone in row crop production.
The WWF brochure claimed that one-third of a pound of pesticides are required to grow the cotton to make a single t-shirt, a statement in error by a factor of more than 100 (more than 10,000%). Like the Textile Exchange, the WWF continues to make huge errors of objective fact when describing cotton production practices because such errors are supportive of fund raising efforts.
Following his inauguration in January, president Trump insisted that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest in history, when aerial photographs show otherwise.
Alternative Facts are Common in Cotton
With the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States, new concepts of “alternative facts” in a “post-truth” environment are entering our lexicon. Some people think this “post-truth” environment is something new, but alternative facts are nothing new for those who demonize cotton. The Textile Exchange, the World Wildlife Fund and others have been providing alternative facts about cotton for decades. The only thing new with the inauguration of president Trump is that a label has been given to this “post-truth” universe. The TE, the WWF and President Trump have more in common than either probably care to admit.
In this post-truth world, truth becomes whatever information can be fabricated or twisted into a desired shape to achieve public relations objectives in the service of political or commercial gain. With world production of certified organic cotton at about 112,000 tons and showing no long-term tendency to rise, the Textile Exchange must demonize conventional cotton to justify its budget of US$1.6 million. Likewise, the WWF-Pakistan must justify its fundraising by demonizing conventional cotton to maintain a raison d’être for its existence.
It would be naive to think that these publications by the TE and WWF-Pakistan are mere errors of oversight. It is not as if these publications are e-mail blasts sent on a Friday afternoon by an intern who didn’t know better. This is an annual report by the TE that must have been heavily reviewed and edited, and a pamphlet published by WWF in the hundreds and maybe thousands for distribution throughout Pakistan, and perhaps elsewhere. These publications represent willful distortion; they contain alternative facts in the most Trumpian sense.
Purveyors of alternative facts make evidence-free assertions to perpetuate falsehoods of convenience. Erroneous assertions about pesticide use in cotton have been circulating for decades, and purveyors of alternative facts need only perpetuate allegations, no matter how preposterous or false, to maintain fictions useful to their self-identity, self-esteem and not incidentally, self-promotion.
By providing the imprimatur of an official designation to alternative facts, the Textile Exchange and WWF-Pakistan contribute to a post-truth world in which objective truth about cotton production is undermined, or simply swamped, to create public acceptance of a redefined truth that benefits their marketing efforts. That these alternative facts are in fact outright falsehoods that undermine the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of legitimate producers is merely intellectual and economic collateral damage in service of the greater good of preserving jobs at the TE and WWF.
Circular Reinforcement Results in Resistance to Facts
Anyone who pays even occasional attention to current developments in agricultural science and cotton production technologies, anyone who ever glances at journals devoted to new developments in cotton research, anyone who even occasionally attends agricultural production conferences cannot help but notice the nearly (there are a few exceptions) total absence of anyone associated with organic cotton production.
Advocates for organic cotton rarely attended world or regional technical conferences organized by ICAC while I served as executive director, even when specifically informed. Nor were more than one or two advocates for the identity cottons or environmental organizations ever seen at national production conferences hosted by Australia, Brazil or the United States in the years I attended such conferences. Nor did those who commonly provide alternative facts about cotton subscribe to ICAC publications devoted to cotton research, and I think we can presume they subscribe to no production publications at all. However, the Textile Exchange reports that more than 400 people from 258 companies and 39 countries participated in the 2016 Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in October in Hamburg, just one month prior to the U.S. election.
The Textile Exchange and its supporters are oblivious to updates that have occurred in agricultural production practices since the 1960s. In a post-truth world, there is no need to be currently informed. In contrast, representatives of the ICAC Secretariat always monitored publications and meetings sponsored by the identity cottons and kept researchers around the world informed of developments through the publication of summaries with full citations and by inviting representatives to attend ICAC meetings.
Like president Trump and his team of advisors living in a post-truth world, advocates of organic and other identity cottons prefer to avoid information challenging their beliefs, their public relations efforts and their marketing campaigns, instead reading only publications and attending only conferences supportive of their own advocacy objectives. The circular reinforcement provided by interaction only with those who agree with you results in resistance to believe anything inconvenient.
Alternative Facts Betray Weakness
You can often tell the truth of a proposition by the exaggerations its proponents feel obliged to tell. Propositions that are inherently strong require no embellishment; propositions that are inherently weak, must be buttressed with falsehoods. The fact that cotton’s detractors feel obliged to tell falsehoods about conventional cotton demonstrates the weaknesses of their propositions and the insecurity of their employment.
There is nothing wrong with organic cotton production practices, and the work of WWF in support of BCI can be highly beneficial. For small holders with inadequate resources to purchase synthetic inputs, organic production techniques may be better than no production techniques. BCI has a laudatory agenda designed to improve efficiency and raise incomes. It is ironic that TE and WWF-Pakistan working in support of BCI apparently do not themselves believe in the value of their own programs. If TE and WWF believed their programs to be of intrinsic value, they would feel no need to demonize conventional cotton with alternative facts. That these organizations, and many more, feel the need to demonize demonstrates their awareness of their own limitations.
President Trump is sometimes described as arrogant, self-righteous, insecure and bombastic. The Textile Exchange, WWF and president Trump have more in common, much more, than either care to admit, and that statement may be doing a disservice to president Trump.