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Driving change in water use amongst India's cotton farmers

Cotton is a thirsty crop (© CottonConnect)
Cotton is a thirsty crop
© CottonConnect

In India, there are over 4 million smallholder farmers who produce cotton on less than one hectare, many of whom run up huge debts to purchase pesticides and fertilisers in order to protect their crops and increase yields. Pollution of groundwater, due to chemicals seeping through the soil, is a serious challenge; globally, 16 per cent of the world's pesticides are used in growing cotton. Water scarcity is also becoming a more persistent problem. Cotton is a thirsty crop, and it can take around 2,500 litres of water to produce one t-shirt with a weight of 250 grams. Yet in India, more than 40 per cent of the country's population is projected to be without access to clean drinking water by 2020.

In a groundbreaking study financed by clothing chain C&A, and conducted by the Water Footprint Network (WFN) and CottonConnect, the greywater footprint* was used as an indicator to assess water pollution from different farming practices. The results revealed that cotton farmers are able to reduce their greywater footprint by adopting organic and improved farming practices.

Scientific proof

Cotton farmers are able to reduce their greywater footprint by adopting organic practices (© CottonConnect)
Cotton farmers are able to reduce their greywater footprint by adopting organic practices
© CottonConnect

In 2011, data was collected from 480 cotton farmers in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh states, half of whom used conventional farming practices and the other half, organic practices. The results revealed that although organic production did impact water resources, through leaching of nitrogen and phosphorous from organic fertilisers, its overall impact was significantly smaller than conventional practices. Using the greywater footprint indicator, the study quantified that, on average, the impact of pollution from conventional practices was 50 times bigger than that from organic practices.

Anita Chester, CottonConnect's CEO in South Asia, states that, although these results were as expected, the study is significant. In India, cotton production overall has risen by about ten per cent since 2010, but organic production dropped by 48 per cent between 2010 and 2011, attributed to a shortage in organic seed, more stringent certification and falling prices. "This is a worrying trend, which we hope will begin to be reversed by presenting scientific research to stakeholders of the benefits of organic production to soil health, groundwater quality and quantity, and the livelihoods and health of farmers," says Chester.

The study also identified 'critical' farms with significantly larger than average greywater footprints. "This is valuable information for C&A and CottonConnect because it encourages work with the identified farmers in order to better understand their agricultural practices, and supports the formulation of specific responses aimed at decreasing water pollution impacts in a more efficient and targeted way," states Erika Zarate, WFN Associate.

Reversing the trend

CottonConnect promotes drip irrigation, alternating furrows and rainwater harvesting technologies (© CottonConnect)
CottonConnect promotes drip irrigation, alternating furrows and rainwater harvesting technologies
© CottonConnect

CottonConnect has already begun to disseminate the results of the study to over 20,000 conventional cotton farmers in South Asia and China. "We try to make farmers more sensitive to the benefits of organic farming, reduce inputs and save water," Chester adds. Flood irrigation is traditionally used in cotton production, but CottonConnect promotes drip irrigation, alternating furrows and rainwater harvesting technologies to help farmers conserve and sustainably use water. C&A also provides funding to help farmers invest in water saving technologies.

"Results of this study clearly favour a wider implementation of organic agriculture," Chester explains. "Pesticides from conventional cotton agriculture were found to be the critical pollutant in most of the farms. The health of organic farmers and their workers was also better and, because it's a low input system, farmers don't have to borrow money to buy expensive inputs," she adds. But Chester acknowledges that there are serious hurdles to overcome.

One of the main hurdles is volatile cotton prices, particularly the declining premium for organic cotton, making it less economically attractive. "Seed companies are quite uninterested in developing seed suitable for organic production because they constitute a very small market," Chester explains. "So farmers have to rely on developing their own seed, or use what is available from local dealers."

CottonConnect and C&A are currently working on a programme to propagate organic seeds. "Organic cotton is key to our commitment to supporting sustainable agriculture," explains Philip Chamberlain, head of sustainable business development at C&A. "We felt it important to support our key supply chain partners with the availability of good quality organic seed, ultimately benefiting the organic cotton community at large."

Sustaining production

CottonConnect has begun to disseminate the results of the study to over 20,000 cotton farmers in South Asia and China (© CottonConnect)
CottonConnect has begun to disseminate the results of the study to over 20,000 cotton farmers in South Asia and China
© CottonConnect

"C&A's commitment to the project is an example of how a company can assess water footprints to understand water consumption and pollution in their supply chain and take responsibility for reducing impacts to scarce and precious water resources," says Ruth Mathews, WFN executive director.

In order to build up more scientific proof of the benefits of organic production, WFN, with funding from C&A, is implementing a further study aimed at a more detailed analysis of conventional and organic farming practices and their impacts on water quality, in order to help farmers reduce their greywater footprint. "Sustainability makes perfect business sense and securing a sustainable and transparent supply in the future is vital," Chamberlain concludes.

* The greywater footprint represents the volume of freshwater required to assimilate a certain load of pollutants reaching ground and surface water so that the quality of the water remains above water quality standards

Date published: July 2012

 

Have your say

Irrigation/fertigation by drip systems has all the benefits ... (posted by: Brett Keane)

Hello all. Good to know that study of organic cotton shows p... (posted by: Barah BC)

 

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