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Uncertain future for organic cotton

By Darryl D'Monte

Organic cotton is being projected as a way out of the pitfalls of capital- and input-intensive agriculture. But poor awareness and little or no support from the government are making even organic cotton cultivation risky and unviable

Not everyone knows that India has now overtaken the US to become the world's second largest producer of cotton, after China. This is largely due to genetically modified Bt cotton, which improves yields, although its long-term sustainability is in question. Not to mention the much higher price of these seeds. One of the reasons why cotton farmers are committing suicide in Vidarbha and elsewhere in the country is the high risk associated with cotton in general, and Bt cotton in particular. Cotton accounts for half of all pesticides used in India.

It is against this backdrop that activists are trying to project organic cotton as a way out of the pitfalls of capital- and input-intensive agriculture.

According to a recent report, textile companies are taking steps to ensure that they obtain adequate -- and, what's more, reliable -- supplies of organic cotton. This includes contracting farmers to produce specified quantities at a guaranteed price (something they can no longer do with conventional cotton). An official from a company called Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Ltd in Ahmedabad estimates that the demand for organic cotton products around the globe is growing by 70-80% every year. India now supplies a little over a third of the world demand, which is put at nearly 43,000 tonnes a year. Domestic demand is abysmal, partly due to ignorance but also because of the higher price.

The Shell Foundation, a UK-based charity founded by the multinational oil company seven years ago, is helping cotton farmers in the arid regions of Kutch shift from traditional farming to organic agriculture. Since 2001, around 2,000 small farmers have been assisted to make this shift. The Foundation works with Agrocel, a farm services provider which, in turn, has tied up with the giant UK apparel company, Marks & Spencer.

To boost organic agriculture in general, the Planning Commission has proposed setting up a Rs 2,500 crore fund in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-12). Earlier, it had provided Rs 100 crore to set up the National Centre for Organic Farming. China, always with an eye on global markets, is promoting 'green farming' for food crops which again have export potential only at this juncture.

During a recent visit to Ner village in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha, I was accompanied by Subash Deshmukh, a cotton farmer who owns 12 acres of land and has been growing organic varieties for research since 1991. Deshmukh sows five varieties and another nine hybrids, and estimates that yields after this period are now the same as those he got with sulphates as fertiliser and insecticides -- an average of three quintals per acre annually.

As farmer after farmer explains, Bt cotton may tackle the American bollworm, against which the US multinational Monsanto developed its strain of GM cotton seed. However, it does not prevent sucking pests from attacking the cotton plants. With organic cotton, there is much greater plant diversity: pests proliferate in different seasons, but it also brings back birds that were deterred by the pesticides, which prey on the pests. "What emerges from the ground is the best," he says. There are no weeds, since every plant is interred in the soil and nutrients thus return to it.

Like other organic cotton farmers in Vidarbha, Deshmukh grows other crops like chillies, tuvar (dal), jowar and onions, in between the cotton. These bring harvests at different periods, which enable a farmer to earn throughout the year. Once the vegetables are harvested, the rest of the plant is left to rot in the heavy black cotton soil. Deshmukh describes this as "mulching and manuring with weeds and waste," all of which saves on pesticides and fertiliser.

Vasantrao Pohekar, who is president of the Sendriya Sheti (organic agriculture) Sanshodan and Vikas Samiti, and owns 25 acres of land, has gone a step further and also grows oranges and lime in his cotton fields. "The tuvar crop looks better with irrigation, but it lacks taste," he observes. His colleague in the organisation, Madhukarrao Bobde, says farms in Ner processed around 3,000 quintals last year, and 5,000 quintals are expected this year. The cotton is certified by the organisation Ecocert, without which no importer will consider the produce. A field has to be certified as not having used fertiliser or pesticide for three years; chemical tests are conducted on soil samples to ensure that there are no residues.

Pohekar serves on the official Yavatmal district farmers' suicides cell, which has been in existence for two years. He regrets the fact that the government is only trying to provide further loans as relief to farmers in deep distress, when the real need is for higher cotton prices. This is particularly true now that cotton is not procured in as systematic a manner as was previously, with the ushering in of a more liberalised agricultural regime under the World Trade Organisation. The US subsidises its 25,000 cotton farmers by some $ 4.5 billion a year. As instances of the rock-bottom prices of some agricultural produce in the new dispensation, Pohekar cites how mung dal was sold in the area at Rs 3,200 a quintal last year; this year, it fetches only Rs 1,800. And while the country is importing wheat at Rs 1,600 a quintal, farmers here are getting only half this rate.

In Wardha, Vijay Jawandhia of the Shetkari Sanghatana, a former associate of Sharad Joshi, is not very sanguine about the prospect of organic cotton countering moves to liberalise agriculture. He firmly believes that farmers have been given a raw deal. His mathematics is simple but to the point. Two metres of cloth go into the making of a shirt. It requires 200 gm of cotton lint to make the fabric; the raw material costs Rs 10 or US 25 cents. The shirt, once branded abroad, can sell for as much as $ 40 -- marked up 40 times. "Agriculture is an open book," he says. "You get the results within a year (presumably contrasting this with industry or trade, where there are so many invisibles, not to mention subsidies). This is why Devinder Sharma, a food policy analyst, has recently advocated fixed minimum wages for farmers -- citing the anomaly of the lowest rung of government employees who have lately been given a DA hike.

The promoters of Chetna Vikas, an experimental research farm run by Ashok Bang and Niranjana Maru, however, believe that alternative practices are inextricably tied up with the increased wellbeing of farm labourers. They have an outreach amongst 150 villages in Wardha district and are convinced that their work amounts to human resource development and the empowerment of farm workers, leveraging their knowledge, attitudes and skills. Sustainable agriculture -- as opposed to high-input farming -- thus involves nature resource management and can be gender-positive.

Chetna Vikas grows different varieties of organic cotton, but none as a monoculture. It is conscious of the need not just to generate cash incomes, but also to ensure food security, nutrition and livelihoods. Its acronym is HIRA, standing for "high internal regenerative inputs," which sounds like a mouthful until one realises that it refers to generating virtually all inputs in situ. There is, in Bang's words, "a consortium of companion crops" with organic cotton. These include lentils, cereals like bajra, corn and dryland paddy, condiments and vegetables -- all of which are harvested at different intervals, assuring a steady income throughout the year.

Combined with rainwater harvesting and field-based watershed bunds, such agriculture ensures that the scanty rainfall in Vidarbha -- only 5% of the region is irrigated -- is sparingly used and stored for much longer. At the height of the worst summers, when there has been no rain for 35 days, moisture has been retained in the soil through mulching.

The problem with all organic farming is that it is swimming against the tide, particularly in this country. Even if it has been a good year for organic cotton, there's the question of certification. Omprakash Mor runs Eco Farms (India) Pvt Ltd in Yavatmal. He concedes that organic cotton is a niche market and its price is determined by supply and demand. Since small farmers can't hold stocks, they tend to undersell in a good year to dealers. He claims to handle the produce of 150,000 farmers in Orissa and 20,000 farmers in Maharashtra.

Another drawback is that there is poor knowledge about the international market, and the government provides no support -- not even the Central Cotton Research Institute in Nagpur, under whose nose these experiments are being carried out. The catalyst for this agriculture comes entirely from outside the country. Mor is also sceptical about the role of certification agencies. In general, after three years of switching over to organic farming, samples of the soil are randomly tested to ensure that no chemicals are present. However, since agencies are competing in the trade, they tend to favour their own producers and genuine small producers are harassed as a result. Eco Farms uses Ecocert, which is a German agency, located in Aurangabad.

The European Union is the biggest market for organic cotton, and the US is importing it as well, with an eye on the future international organic textiles market. Another problem here is that even when cotton is organically grown, there is a shortage of lasting organic dyes, without which no fabrics can be certified. Thus, India will remain a raw material producer for textile manufacturers around the world until such time as it gets its act together. There have been some attempts at making lasting dyes out of vegetable products in Rajasthan. The irony of this situation is inescapable: a few centuries ago, India was the dyeing centre of the world, with indigo ruling the roost until synthetic substitutes were found. Not many are aware that the word 'dungaree' -- an old name for jeans -- is derived from the Mumbai area of Dongri, which was a famous dyeing centre.

Several small and big organic cotton producers have attempted to go commercial. The biggest such venture was Maikaal BioRe, the head office of which is in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, which at one stage may even have been the biggest such venture in the world. It was a joint enterprise of a textile manufacturer called Maikaal Fibres Ltd and Patrick Hohmann, managing director of the Swiss cotton yarn trading company, Remie AG. As early as 1992, it bought the produce of 1,000 farmers over 7,600 acres in 80 villages in Khargone district.

Other companies that are organised by the International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture (CCOCA), which is supported by the Swiss, include Agrocel Mandvi and Amit Green Acre Pvt Ltd in Gujarat; Prathibha Syntex Ltd in Pithampur and Mahima Organic Technology in Madhya Pradesh; OCGRA in Andhra Pradesh; and the Vidarbha Organic Farmers Association (VOFA).

The overall picture for organic cotton looks bright though the immediate future appears uncertain, given the tendency to go in for high-input -- and in particular genetically modified -- cotton. With cotton farmers in Vidarbha experiencing deep structural problems, it will be a long time before they are convinced that organic agriculture could be a way out. With no help from the government and research agencies, it's difficult to see where the push will come from.

InfoChange News & Features, November 2007