Hazardous pesticides, derived from chemicals developed for warfare and not suitable for food crops, have been used to cultivate cotton for more than fifty years. To reduce reliance on pesticides, Bt cotton was introduced globally without considering the implications of using GE cotton crops as a food and feed source.

With the widespread use of cotton in our food supply, the consequences of heavy pesticide use and cotton biotechnology can no longer be ignored. Cotton in the food chain may have adverse effects. Food allergies may be a possible outcome.


More than 2.3 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually on U.S. crops. Pesticides are not only poisonous, but they harm the ecosystem by killing beneficial insects and microorganisms in the soil. Worldwide, cotton covers 2.5 percent of the cultivated land and uses 16 percent of the world’s pesticides. Eight of the top 10 pesticides most commonly used on U.S. conventionally produced cotton were classified as moderately to highly hazardous by the World Health Organization.


Chemicals which are banned for use on food crops have been widely used on cotton. Aldicarb, cotton's second best selling pesticide and most acutely poisonous to humans and wildlife, can kill someone instantly with just one drop absorbed through the skin. Nonetheless, it is still used in 25 countries and in the U.S. where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater (1).


Cottonseed contains the natural toxin gossypol, which acts as a natural insecticide. However, gossypol poisoning is common and may be deadly for dairy cows and other livestock. (2)


Cotton is one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world (83 percent), along with soy (89 percent), canola (75 percent), and corn (61 percent). GMO cotton ranks ninth in global crop production. In 2010, an average of 90 percent of U.S. cotton was genetically engineered, according to a USDA survey. However 95–98 percent of all U.S. cotton is now genetically engineered in nine of the 11 cotton producing states surveyed (3).


Although Bt cotton was developed to reduce the use of pesticides by building pest resistant genes into the cotton plant, the global implications of genetically modified cotton for human, animal, and environmental health have not been beneficial. In 2011, Pakistani farmers reported that Bt cottonseed cakes were harming their cattle. They cited lack ofappetite, decline in milk production, premature deliveries, infertility and sudden death of the animals due to unknown causes. The farmers also reported that the taste of the milk, yogurt, butter, and ghee had become bitter. Skin-related itching on the animals was noticed. If Bt cottonseed was found to be harmful to animals, it is likely that food products from these animals would also be hazardous. (4)


Cotton in our food supply

Approximately 5.2 million tons of cotton are produced in the U.S. annually and three million tons of the raw cottonseed are used as feed for livestock, including dairy cattle. Manure sourced from cows fed Bt or pesticide-laden cottonseed meal and used as a food crop fertilizer may be a source of food chain contamination.


It is estimated that as much as 65% of hazardous conventional cotton production ends up in our food chain. (1) This is due to the use of cotton by-products, generated by manufacturing non-food cotton products such as clothing, textiles, personal care products, and bedding. These by-products are commonly known as “Gin Trash” and consist of cotton seed, stalk, leaves, burrs, twigs, and dirt not used in cotton textile production. The “gin trash” is then sold to food companies to undergo further processing to create cottonseed oil, vitamins, additives, and fillers for processed foods, livestock feed, fertilizers, and soil compost mix. The waste from this process pollutes our water supply and adversely affects aquatic life.


Hazards of cotton as food

Cottonseed oil

Although cotton is not a food, cottonseed oil is produced for human consumption. Conventional cottonseed oil may be highly contaminated with pesticide residues or may contain GMOs. Olive oil is commonly mixed with other oils to reduce the cost. These adulterated oils include the use of high risk GMO cottonseed, corn, canola, and soy oil. In an FDA study testing the purity of 73 olive oils distributed domestically, only four percent of all oils were found to be unadulterated, though all were sold as 100 percent olive oil. This means that unknowingly, consumers may be using cottonseed and other GMO oils which may be unlabeled ingredients in a variety of food products. (5)


Unrefined cottonseed oil is highly toxic and a skin irritant. Refined cottonseed oil is considered edible, however compared to other oils, such as olive oil and sunflower oil, it is high in saturated fats. Cottonseed oil, if partially hydrogenated, as found in margarines or solid shortenings, contains high amounts of trans-fats, which are considered dangerous for health. Although omega 3 fatty acids are said to be essential for good heart health, cottonseed oil is high in omega 6 fatty acids which may increase the risk of heart disease. From this perspective, health conscious consumers may wish to avoid cottonseed oil.Cottonseed oil is a common ingredient in mayonnaise, salad dressing, pasta sauce, blended vegetable oils, chips and deep fried snack foods, margarine, baked goods, pancake and waffle mix, and crackers. Cottonseed oil is also used as vitamin E. Cottonseed flour is used in food supplements, bread, and candy. The cooked and toasted flour is used as a coloring agent in food products.


Cottonseed meal is the by-product which remains after the seeds are crushed and the oil is extracted. It is used for animal feed and fertilizers. It may contain gossypol.


Avoidance of packaged foods as well as exclusive use of certified organic products, which prohibit the use of GMOs at all stages of production and which have been tested for pesticide residues and other contaminants, is a first step in reducing exposure to the hazards of cotton in our food supply. Mandatory testing, mandatory labeling, and consumer education are also necessary.


Allergic reactions to cottonseed oil

According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 15 million Americans now suffer from food allergies. This includes more than 3.1 million school age children. (6) A variety of symptoms have been reported as associated with cottonseed allergies including sneezing, coughing, swelling of the face and eyes, as well as skin irritations and itching. Allergic reactions to cotton as food, may also involve physiological responses to the presence of harmful pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and GMOs. Gossypol may be another factor related to cottonseed food allergies.


Aflatoxins commonly present on stored cottonseeds may also trigger allergic reactions when consumed as food. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “Aflatoxicosis is poisoning that results from ingestion of aflatoxins in contaminated food or feed. The aflatoxins are a group of structurally related toxic compounds produced by certain strains of the fungi Aspergillus flavus and A.parasiticus. Under favorable conditions of temperature and humidity, these fungi grow on certain foods and feeds, resulting in the production of aflatoxins. The most pronounced contamination has been encountered in tree nuts, peanuts, and other oilseeds, including corn and cottonseed. Aflatoxins produce acute necrosis, cirrhosis, and carcinoma of the liver in a number of animal species. No animal species is resistant to the acute toxic effects of aflatoxins, hence it is logical to assume that humans may be similarly affected.” Aflatoxins have been found in the milk of animals that are fed contaminated feed. This may be a hazard for our dairy supply. (7)


Cotton textile processing and food allergies 

Conventional cotton textile processing relies heavily on chemicals, many of which are acutely toxic and classified as hazardous. Traces of these chemicals including silicone waxes, petroleum compounds, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia and formaldehyde, can remain in fabrics even after washing. Such chemicals can cause an array of health problems. For infants, children, and expectant mothers this is especially important. (8) Due to bioaccumulation, some of these toxic chemicals are stored and collected in the body. These chemicals may attack and weaken the immune system. If the immune system is weak, it is likely that one will be more prone to food sensitivity and food allergies.


Cotton dust, another hazard present in the air during cotton handling and processing, contains bacteria, fungus, and pesticide residues which are known to have unfavorable effects on human health.


Misleading labeling, pesticides, gossypol, aflatoxin, common textile processing chemicals, cotton dust, as well as GMOs may all be contributing factors to what seem to be cotton food allergies.



Despite creative and innovative uses of cotton in food by conventional food scientists, it is important to remember that cotton is a fiber not a food. Mandatory testing for pesticides, pesticide residues, and other toxic substances as well as GMOs in cotton food products is vital. Due to strong domestic and international concerns about other GE food crops, addressing the hazards of GMO cotton as a food source has not been a priority. With growing evidence of the health and environmental hazards, removal of these contaminants and gene altering foods is critical for human health and the welfare of the planet.


Our personal choice to support organic agriculture is crucial. Certified organic regulations and standards adhere to strict guidelines for agricultural production, to protect our health and the world’s natural eco-system. It is important for consumers to be well educated about the organic label, GMOs, and food safety to understand what is on the table. It is equally important to read labels carefully.


Organic production is fueled by consumer demand. One of the best ways to support change is by the consumer choices that you make. Exclusive use of certified organic foods and ingredients, which prohibit the use of GMOs at all stages of production, may be an important step in protecting your family's health and ensuring a safe, pure food supply.



1) EJF. (2007). The deadly chemicals in cotton. Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK: London, UK.

2) Gossypol as undesirable substance in animal feed. Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain. The EFSA Journal (2008) 908, 1–55.

3) USDA Economic Research Service, July 1, 2011. 

4) http://agriculture-alt.blogspot.com/2012/12/bt-cotton-toxicity-of-cottonseed-as.html

5) http://www.allallergy.net/fapaidfind.cfm?cdeoc=429 

6) http://www.npr.org/2013/04/15/177319365/the-doctor-trying-to-solve-the-mystery-of-food-allergies 

7) http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/CausesOfIllnessBadBugBook/ucm071020.htm

8) Kadolph, S. J., & Langford, A. L. (2002). Textiles (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Simi Summer, Ph.D., is an educator concerned about the purity of the world food supply.