When cotton plants talk, Rebecca Klein listens

I have found through hours of Internet surfing — er, research — that Rebecca Calahan Klein, the director of the Organic Exchange, has the ability to communicate with plants. I am calling this ability, bio-telepathy. As you will read later, it can be quite intimate.

This amazing fact came to light during a June 2007 visit by the irrepressible Klein to several cotton farms in South Africa. Before we go any further, you should know that the OE is a non-profit organization which promotes the sustainability of organic cotton by casually spreading myths and misinformation about conventionally-grown cotton.

Klein was in rare form on the trip, according to an online report by BusinessReport. Referring to an OE publicity photograph of children in the middle of an organic cotton field waving at the camera, Klein exclaimed to a reporter, “When you shift to organic, you can actually be in your fields. When you use chemicals, you can't actually be in your fields most of the growing season, it's too toxic.”

Undoubtedly, I'm in big trouble because I've walked through hundreds of Mid-South cotton fields at all stages of physiological development over the past 19 years, and I ought to be breaking out in a sweat or something any minute now.

But an even bigger problem is that I am not blessed with the bio-telepathy thing. Plainly, Klein hears voices that I do not.

Now on a roll, Klein told the reporter that non-organic farmers use chemicals to defoliate the cotton plant and kill it off as the harvest approaches. Then she said, “When the plant is dying it's like, ‘Oh I want to reproduce! I want to reproduce!’ And it pops open and then you can pick the cotton.”

And there you have it, folks — an actual quote from plants spilling their innermost thoughts to Klein. (There's no telling what else she heard that can't be repeated here.)

Klein's tortured teachings of cotton physiology are plenty comical. Any 10-year old Mississippi farm kid knows that when defoliants are applied to cotton, most of the cotton bolls are already open as a result of natural aging.

Also, defoliants don't kill the plant as Klein implies. In fact, that's the last thing you want to do since this increases the chance of bark and other material being harvested with the cotton.

And let's not forget that organic cotton producers defoliate, too, by terminating irrigation early, allowing the crop to run out of nitrogen or applying products to the leaves to hasten boll maturation and opening. Some are experimenting with thermal defoliation.

“The end result is the same, whether we do it with heat, salt or a chemical compound. One way or another, you trigger the plant to produce more ethylene to cause the leaves to fall off and the bolls to open,” said Bill Robertson, National Cotton Council's manager, agronomy, soils and physiology.

In her travels, Klein regularly talks up organic cotton as a guilt-free fiber because chemicals are not used in its production. I'm okay with that. But what gets me is that despite her breathtaking ignorance of agriculture, Klein has become an oft-quoted “expert” on the cons of conventionally-grown cotton. And that is downright disturbing — bio-telepathic abilities or not.

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