In India, there is an urgent need for a shift towards ecologically and financially sustainable cotton

India is the largest producer of cotton and the crop is of significant importance to the economy. Closely woven into the cotton story is the fate of over 6 million small and marginal farmers who plant this crop annually.

However, today, we have reached a point of inflection. The so-called successes of past decades heralded by the hasty adoption of transgenic Bt technology are being eclipsed by the recurrence of pest attacks, worsened by unsustainable land and water use. The growing resistance to pests, such as the pink bollworm, and an alarming rise of secondary pests, suggests that there has been an increase of pesticide use.

Other factors like erratic rainfall, poor extension services, dubious seed quality and lack of credit at reasonable rates, aggravate and worsen the situation for farmers who are not able to cover the increasing costs of production. Poor returns and debt cycles are thus driving cotton farmers to despair, and at times, death.

This is not sustainable and there is the recognition of the need for an alternative approach. Organic cotton is that emerging narrative, which can bring sustainable and regenerative practices into cotton farming. This means moving it away from the current predominantly monocultural and intensive input approach, which strips the soil of its fertility, and is financially burdensome for the farmers. And India is leading the way for that change.

While only one per cent of India’s cotton production is organic, it is the world’s largest producer, producing 56 per cent of the world’s organic cotton. Madhya Pradesh accounts for 43 per cent of the country’s and 24 per cent of the world’s organic cotton production.

Whilst not comparing it with input intensive chemical farming for yields, organic cotton cultivation does have substantially lower input costs. Safe and environmentally friendly inputs, such as bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides, along with practices such as crop rotation, make organic cotton farming a far more sustainable option.

But organic cotton cultivation in India faces certain unique, deeply rooted challenges, which prevent it from being widely adopted. These range from the lack of availability of seeds to market linkages.

Bridging the input gaps

One of the greatest challenges facing organic cotton farmers today is the lack of access to good quality non-Bt seeds. Transgenic Bt cotton was first introduced in India in 2002, and for the past decade, the cotton seed market in India has been dominated by Bt cotton seeds. Research carried out by public institutions has mostly been biased in favour of American hybrids, and Indian scientists chose to ignore the research on indigenous cultivars.

The few organic cotton cultivars available today do not always meet textile industry quality standards, and often yield cotton that is unsuitable for garment production. The private sector companies, too have focused on Bt cotton seeds. Compounding the problem is poor regulation that has led to a vast variety of Bt cotton seeds being sold to gullible growers, at times without the appropriate labels and required approvals.

Filling these gaps in the ecosystem for seed research and production should be of utmost priority. Public institutions need to step up the research. Bringing together state and international research organisations, civil society and the private sector to conduct and fund research into varietal or hybrid non-Bt seeds can ease supply to farmers and encourage the adoption of organic cotton cultivation. Access to organic fertilisers and bio-pesticides is another key need for organic cultivation to thrive. Our experience in Madhya Pradesh, where we were able to create an ecosystem by getting farmers to produce their own bio-fertilisers and pesticides, showed the promise for sustainable input supply and also supplemented farm income. Providing a monetary push to this activity by way of micro-credit or easy loans can help farmers become self-sustaining.

Institutionalising this and making bio-inputs a viable and subsidised industry should be the subsequent course of action.

The demand-supply paradox

Symptomatic of a chronic malaise is the huge demand-supply imbalance. Volumes of organic cotton production have been illustrating a declining trend and yet the market is planning to increase its sustainable cotton product offering. In the long and opaque supply chain, there is little transparency. Integrity is sometimes questionable, and the smallholder farmers are the least benefitted. This is a serious disconnect that must push us to seek solutions.

Here is where the work of the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) is a step in the right direction and has yielded some preliminary results in linking brands to genuine growers and bringing more transparency into the supply chain. The proof will be in the industry embracing the new business models that incentivise genuine farmers and do not simply rely on certification.

Farmer reorientation

Organic agriculture is not merely about replacing synthetic inputs with natural ones. It is about restoring the natural balance within the farm, with healthy soils that are rich in organic matter. Here the pests are not systematically destroyed by poison, but are kept under control by their predators, just as they are in nature.

Farmers in India are not new to this philosophy and their forefathers had been using ecological methods for generations. Till today poorly resourced farmers are often organic by default.

However, over the years, the significant rise in Bt cotton on the promise of better yields veered farmers away from their traditional cultivation methods. Reorientation is now required, and we need to institutionalise the technology and the knowledge to deal with pests and crop diseases without chemicals. Imparting the necessary technical know-how, through trainings conducted by agriculture experts and scientists, will have to be a vital element of all future capacity-building initiatives.

Potential for collaboration

Though collaboration among stakeholders is important, balancing local with global is key. It is vital for organisations like the Organic and Fairtrade Cotton Secretariat (OFCS) and OCA to work together to deliver the much-needed solutions for change.

The OFCS in Madhya Pradesh has been working to create a meaningful collaboration between the State Agricultural Universities, research institutes, seed companies, and NGOs in finding bespoke and local solutions. OCA works to bring together brands and their supply chains in a pre-competitive spirit and supports innovations in non-Bt seed breeding.

The collaboration between the two organisations fosters a direct link between farmers and brands, thus offering the appropriate incentives, and brings innovation to seed research by incorporating international research and funding to local solutions. Locally embedded solutions are now having a global impact and giving us reason for optimism.

Much work has begun, and the organic cotton sector is on the path to a big market shift. For the pace to accelerate and the sector to thrive, we need to continue working together on constructive and actionable solutions that will shape the sector. We stay hopeful.