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Cotton: the moral fibre of going organic

Mature cotton boll (FiBL)
Mature cotton boll

Cotton fibre is the fabric of life in many farming families in Asia, Africa and South America. Globally, more than 50 million farmers grow it, but many receive a low price for their product, or find it difficult to compete with cotton producers in developed countries.

There is, however, a fast-growing niche for organic, or low-input cotton, that is beginning to interest many small-scale farmers. But the question posed by Camilla Toulmin Director of the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) at the 2006 Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture, organised by Pesticide Action Network UK, was: "How can we be sure that the increasing demand and premiums for organic or low-input cotton will bring better prices to farmers, and not just benefit others in the supply chain?"

Global trends and unfair trade

World cotton production has doubled in the last 40 years and around 25 million tonnes is grown each year. Whilst India and China are the main sources of growth, production in West Africa has risen tenfold over the last four decades to a million tonnes a year. Unfortunately, however, there are few processing facilities, and most of the fibre is exported raw.

Genetically modified cotton is becoming increasingly important in many parts of the world, and now provides almost a third of world production. In contrast, organic cotton sells for up to 20 percent more than the conventional cotton but currently accounts for only 0.1 percent of global cotton output. Production of the organic cotton, grown from non genetically modified (GM) seed and grown without the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, has nonetheless increased by 35 percent a year from 2002 rising to a doubling in production during 2005-6.

Instead of using pesticides, this organic cotton farmer uses a food spray to attract beneficial insect (Pesticide Action Network UK)
Instead of using pesticides, this organic cotton farmer uses a food spray to attract beneficial insect
Pesticide Action Network UK

The viability of cotton farming, however, hangs by a thread. Currently cotton makes about US$1.25/kilo, well below the long-term average of about US$1.54/kilo. Industry analysts attribute current low market prices for raw cotton to the oversupply of subsidised American cotton onto the world market. In the United States 25,000 farmers receive $3.5 billion in subsidies. Most developing country farmers receive no subsidies but suffer the consequences of lower world market prices.

"Despite successful appeals led by Brazil, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Chad and a ruling by the World Trade Organisation that has stipulated that the US government that its cotton subsidies contravene global trade rules," says Toulmin."The US seems happy to ignore the multilateral rules when it suits its interests." After fierce lobbying from Spain, the European Union has also recently postponed reducing its support to EU cotton growers.

Cotton Initiatives

To support the two million cotton farmers in West Africa, a number of initiatives to increase returns are underway. "Currently farmers in Mali get 165 francs per kilo of seed cotton," explains Toulmin. "But costs of production are more like 180-190 francs a kilo." In Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, organic cotton certified to European standards is supported by Helvetas, a Swiss NGO. Standards linking ecological criteria with fair trade and social justice concepts for cotton are also promoted by Max Havelaar and the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, to give growers a premium considerably above the conventional price.

In Benin and Burkina Faso, an alliance (GTZ, the German technical agency, the OTTO clothing group and local textile companies) is pushing ahead with introducing reduced pesticide use, and forging closer links between growers and buyers. On a more global scale the Better Cotton Initiative of UNEP, WWF and others aims to set standards in West Africa, Asia and Brazil, at a level which could involve 50 percent of cotton producers. This is in contrast to the much smaller proportion likely to attain Fairtrade and organic certification, estimated at around five percent.

Changing methods of production

Switching to lower input methods of growing cotton, however, is a risk. Initially, yields tend to fall until efforts to improve soil fertility and integrated pest control measures bear fruit. New varieties are needed. "It is important to understand the modern cotton genome," warns Sam Page of CABI Biosciences. "Most varieties cultivated today have been bred to suit high input systems. It is very important that breeding programmes are making selections that will give farmers new cotton varieties to suit lower inputs." On the technical side, Dr Robert Mensah, who leads sustainable pest management developments at the Australian Cotton Research Institute, has pioneered the use of beneficial insects in managing key pests to raise quality and lower costs of production.

Counting on customers

Spinning organic cotton in Senegal (Edna Pronat)
Spinning organic cotton in Senegal
Edna Pronat

Higher returns and lower costs of production make switching to integrated pest management or organic production systems tempting, and could lead to significant increases in farmer incomes. However, no matter how much farmers wish to improve their cotton incomes, their future depends on the choices made by consumers.

Nearly $1.1 billion in organic cotton products were bought in 2006, nearly double previous year's figure of $583m. Sales worth $2.6 billion are predicted by 2008. Organic retailer William Lana of Greenfibres believes this represents a promising development for farmers. "It is not just a more environmentally-friendly way of growing for the textile industry. Developments in the cotton supply chain give us a road map to a more sustainable textile industry."

Camilla Toulmin is guardedly optimistic. "It is difficult to imagine organic production becoming mainstream without positive developments all along the thread that links the supply chain from farmer to wearer. But certainly West African cotton farmers want change."

Date published: January 2007


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