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Sustainable organic cotton farming

Cotton, the most important fiber crop of India plays a dominant role in its agrarian and industrial economy. It is the backbone of our textile industry, accounting for 70% of total fiber consumption in the textile sector, and 38% of the country’s export, fetching over Rs. 42,000 crores. The area under cotton cultivation in India (8.9 million ha) is the highest in the world, i.e., 25% of the world area and employs seven million people for their living.

Sustainable organic cotton farming
Figure 1: Organic cotton still only occupies a tiny niche of far less than 1% of global cotton production.

Organic cotton still only occupies a tiny niche of far less than 1% of global cotton production. However, the number of farms converting to organic cotton and the number of projects is constantly increasing. There are a number of reasons to grow cotton organically. The negative impacts of conventional cotton farming on the environment and health are obvious and well known.

But if you look at the fact that around 60% of the cotton weight harvest is cotton seed that is processed to edible oil and cattle feed, you realize that the bigger part of cotton production enters the human food chain. We also know that the pesticides sprayed on cotton do not only affect the target pest.

Beneficial insects and other animals are killed, too, so that pests that formerly were of minor importance now have become a major problem (for example, whitefly and aphids). In some areas of Andhra Pradesh, the groundwater has become so polluted with chemicals that people need to buy their drinking water from outside.

In addition, many of the farmers and laborers spraying pesticides face health problems that cause them to miss a lot of work and have additional costs for medical treatment. There are many cases in India where farmers have even died after applying chemical pesticides.

Central India, many conventional farmers have faced a decline in soil fertility over the past two decades. In some cases, the soil got so hard that the farmers had to give up groundnut cultivation. While cotton yields were on the decline, increasing amounts of fertilizers and pesticides were needed to maintain the crop.

Advantage of Organic Cotton
Figure 2: Advantage of Organic Cotton.

Declining yields and increasing input costs, in combination with the frequent droughts, have left many farmers in a debt trap. When speaking to smallholder organic cotton farmers in developing countries, the following motivations are stated as the most important ones:

Market demand for textiles made from organic cotton mainly exists in Europe, the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia. Some large companies become involved with organic cotton textiles in order to improve their corporate image with respect to environmental and social accountability.

The main reasons for consumers to buy textiles made out of organic cotton are:

  • To reduce the risk of skin irritation and allergies
  • To protect the environment from toxic chemicals
  • To support sustainable agricultural production in the country where the cotton is grown
  • To ensure that the farmers in developing countries receive a fair price.
Growing organic cotton – A system approach
Figure 3: Growing organic cotton – A system approach.

rowing organic cotton – a system approach

Converting a farm to organic production does not simply mean replacing chemical fertilizers and pesticides with organic ones. Organic cotton must be grown in a diverse and balanced farming system that also includes the other crops.

Instead of troubleshooting, organic farmers should try to prevent problems and avoid substitutes for conventional inputs as far as possible. This requires a thorough understanding of nutrient and pest management and the ability to continuously observe and learn.

To get satisfactory yields and income in organic cotton farming it is necessary to adopt a number of integrated measures in a system approach, ensuring that the interaction among soil, plants, environment and people is well balanced. The ‘ingredients for success’ all need to be applied together (Figure 3):

  1. Suitable measures to improve and maintain soil fertility
  2. Establishment of crop rotation and crop diversity; fostering natural balance
  3. Selection of varieties suitable to the conditions (soil, availability of irrigation, market requirements)
  4. Appropriate types and amounts of manures at the right time
  5. Timely crop management such as intercultural operations, weeding and irrigation
  6. Careful monitoring of the crop and sufficient protection against pests according to the concept of economic threshold level
  7. Timely and proper picking of the cotton
  8. Sufficient documentation for inspection and certification
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