What's So Special About Organic Cotton?


Cotton grown conventionally accounts for 2.5 percent of the world’s agricultural land but 12 percent of the worlds pesticides (according to research by ICAC, PAN UK and the EJF). Conventional cotton is usually grown as a monoculture crop, depleting the land of nutrients and requiring large inputs of artificial fertiliser to keep production going. Fossil-fuel resources (of which conventional farming practices depend upon) are running out and climate change adds to farmers' vulnerability in terms of both production and income.

Farm support systems tend to favour large agribusiness rather than small-scale farming and the business model of commodity production reinforces existing social inequities and economic disadvantages – especially for smallholders in developing countries. These trends amplify the already risky and unpredictable conditions under which small-scale farmers operate. This is especially true for cotton growers.

Cotton is grown as a ‘cash crop’ and most conventionally grown cotton enters the commodity market – country of origin and farmer profiles are pretty much invisible, as is the poverty the growers often live in. Organic cotton is grown as a cash crop as well but it can be traced right back to the farmer that grew it, this means you can find out exactly who grew it and discover the benefits to farmers; their families and their land. Approximately 275,000 cotton farmers are producing certified organic cotton.

When you enter our Find a Producer site you will be able to 'meet' organic cotton growers at the ‘Producer Group’ level. The Producer Group may, for example, be an association of independent farmers, a co-operative, an NGO-supported farming group, or a company employing farmers to grow the cotton organically. In most cases, due to the small size of each farmer’s plot, some sort of collaborative ‘organization’ amongst the farmers is required to achieve economically viable amounts of organic cotton for market and share resources. Evidence suggests that collaborative organisation achieves other benefits for farmers such as better business management, gender equality and a common concern for the welfare of the entire community in which the farmers are based.

When organic cotton growing is based on sound, knowledge-intensive techniques i.e. it is organic by design not by default, research is showing that environmental and socio-economic benefits are the reward. This is particularly important for small scale producers in developing countries but proving equally important for farmers living in more affluent countries. Reducing the use of artificial inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides and drawing on both scientific and traditional knowledge in 'agro-ecological' production is proving to be the most progressive model for farming in a 'carbon-constrained', ecologically vulnerable world.      

Organic agriculture boosts the local economy and contributes to stronger, more stable communities.

Organic cotton farmers tend to get paid more for their crop of certified organic cotton via an ‘organic price premium’ (an agreed percent above conventional). Economic support often comes in a package arrangement offering pre-payment for inputs, guaranteed buying, timely payments and extension services such as training.

Organic cotton farmers are also more likely to diversify their income by growing other marketable crops such as sesame and groundnuts, since organic farming encourages the growing of a range of crops for soil and pest management. These other crops also tend to build up food security and any surplus makes its way into local markets. 

According to Pesticide Action Network (PAN), mainstream cotton production practices consume around 11 percent of the world’s agrochemicals (including pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, defoliants etc). Cotton covers 2.5 percent of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 15 percent of the world’s insecticides (i.e. the chemicals targeting bugs), more than any other single major crop. The circumstances leading to heavy dependency on some of agriculture’s most toxic chemicals (some of them banned in developed countries) by the world’s poorest, often illiterate farmers makes conventional cotton farming a moral issue as well as a health and safety one.

Organic agriculture does not allow the use of pesticides. Nor does it allow synthetic fertiliser and other agrochemicals used in conventional growing such as defoliants, growth regulators and so on. Organic production relies on natural, biological and physical or manual techniques for pest control, soil health, and for meeting other agronomic requirements. Organic requires special skills and knowledge to be held by the farmer, and a degree of manual labour to be carried out. Bugs need monitoring, soil needs composting, and weeds need pulling. 'Appropriate' or lower tech farming methods, traditional and sometimes culturally-specific ways of farming are often the best. Organic production is proven to be more resilient to climatic extremes.

Organic cotton production improves food security since it requires the planting of rotational and other farm system crops - which include a good number of food crops such as beans, pulses, grains, rice and nuts. Crop rotation, intercropping and other crop diversification techniques are necessary for maintaining soil fertility, and controlling pests. Further, organic farm systems make for less economic dependency on just one crop. The food crops can be channelled into the local market and contribute to the food needs of the local community. Alongside the cotton, other high value cash crops, such as organic sesame, cashew, mango, chilli and soy, are being further utilized for export by well-organised producer groups and may even be as lucrative as the organic cotton. These alternative markets and strategies for spreading financial risks and opportunities all contribute to better food availability from the field and extra cash for 'topping up' food security.

 

With organic, farms are treated as systems, not as monocultures. The farm system requires a balance of organic inputs, nitrogen-fixing plants and trap crops. As a result organic soils have higher water retention and are more resilient to depletion of essential microelements. Organic builds the soil and mitigates erosion which helps water retention. Healthy soil does not need such levels of agrochemicals and can reportedly produce higher yields, especially in extreme weather conditions.

Organic production promotes biodiversity; since the ‘organic system’ takes advantage of natural vegetation, native border crops and provides more opportunities for pollination. Plant biodiversity in turn encourages insect diversity which can actually keep bug and pest outbreaks at bay. There tends to be less removal of native vegetation; which is important for maintaining healthy ecosystems and a variety of local species.

Organic agriculture is said to reduce energy requirements for production systems by 25 to 50 percent compared to conventional chemical-based agriculture (FAO, 2010). Carbon is sequestered through an increase of soil organic matter content; reducing Greenhouse Gases through their sequestration in soil, and has an even greater potential to mitigate climate change. 

So to conclude, if we want to see improvement in the lives of the 3 million people growing cotton today, and the lives of their children, we need to find ways to make cotton production ecologically sustainable and socially just.

'Organic' holds the key to achieving sustainability and is a role model for cotton initiatives. Organic cotton production "by design - not by default" is a solid business model for the 21st Century farmer... which makes organic cotton very special indeed!

Take our next learning journey Growing Cotton and find out more about the process of organic cotton agriculture.