IATP Organic Cotton Monitor Vol. 3, Number 3

  IATP Organic Cotton Monitor - Vol. 3, Number 3    March 13, 1997

		Table of Contents 

Food self-sufficiency utilizing organic farming has been a primary  focus of organizations' working with small-farmers in developing countries, allowing farmers to make a living by selling the food surplus. In many cases, however, small farmers will grow high value commodity crops like cotton in pursuit of extra income. Governments in developing countries reward the farmers by providing credit and technical assistance for growing these crops utilizing conventional inputs like pesticides, herbicides and high yielding genetically engineered cotton seeds.  The result is that while many subsistence food crops may be grown organically, cash crops like cotton are still treated with expensive fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Half of all pesticides used in Third World countries, over 300 million pounds annually, are used to grow cotton. For some of these countries, cotton accounts for 70% of all export earnings. Costs of cotton production have increased steadily, without a corresponding increase in yield and income. The environmental, health and socio-economic problems associated with cotton production are significant: The drying of the Aral Sea for cotton irrigation; severe soil depletion, environment contamination, health problems in workers due to constant aerial spraying in Colombia.

Conversion to organic cotton growing can reverse the deteriorating economic and environmental situations faced by many small growers in developing countries. No set formula can be applied to every conversion project—the key is understanding the grower base.  In order to develop a successful strategy for conversion to organic growing,  the economic situation of the farmer, their present costs, income and credit, need to be considered. Most important, strategic alliances need to be developed throughout the textile chain. These partnerships will engender a supportive, cooperative marketing environment, wherein buyers are no longer buying an anonymous commodity with prices are set by markets far removed from the grower's fields.

A successful conversion to organic cotton growing has taken place in Madhya Pradesh, India under the auspices of the Maikaal Fibres project. The project has grown from a ten acre trial in 1992 to over 4600 acres planted by 680 farmers for the 1997 crop year (with an additional 3000 acres dedicated to organic food crops). The first step was to minimize the risk of crop failure and subsequent loss of income to farmers from abandoning pesticides. It is important to let farmers experiment with organic growing at what ever level they are comfortable with, so they can become comfortable with the methods and take ownership of the conversion process. There will definitely be a drop in yield in the first year. At the same time, farmers will discover that they have less costs and have better control of inputs. 

After four years, the project has overcome many technical hurdles. Farmers in the 85-village area have become aware of soil fertility resources available for short and long-term nutrient needs, e.g. bio-fertilizers for seed dressing, compost, Phosphorous Solubilising Bacteria (PSB). Yields have increased as well as average income. Now that plant nutrient levels are more balanced after a few years, whiteflys and aphids are no longer a problem; natural predator populations such as ladybird beetles and the green lacewing have increased.  The economic benefits are revealing of the conversion’s success. A third-year study of the project showed that while organic cotton yields were still 14 per cent lower than conventional cotton yields, income for organic growers was about six per cent higher than conventional growers'—due to 37 per cent lower production costs and a 15 per cent premium price achieved for their cotton.

To ensure project sustainability, a number of components should be included in an organic conversion program for a large group of small farmers. These include participatory research and experimentation, training of extension personnel, bio-input procurement and supply with alternative credit for bio-inputs, guaranteed marketing and prompt payment. Most important is the "humanization" of the cotton industry, with direct farmer-trader/farmer-buyer contact which will support the industry in developing regions and move sustainable agriculture ventures forward.

Tadeu Caldas, "Organic Cotton: Not Just A Matter of Fibre," ECOLOGY AND FARMING (IFOAM), January-April 1997.

Increased population, the loss of cropland to urbanization and degradation due to soil erosion have lead to increased demands on marginally productive soils for crop production. On soils that have been classified as highly erodible by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, row crops like cotton and soybean do not produce enough moisture to meet minimum residue requirements, so most farmers must plant winter cover crops. Another way to meet residue requirements, according to researchers,  is to use organic residuals like newspaper and yard trimmings as residue covering during fallow periods. Together, these two materials comprise about 65 percent of municipalities solid waste stream, and can be a valuable source of organic carbon for marginally productive land. While conventional cotton yields increased with the use of organic residuals, the research is not yet conclusive as to how many years the application can be repeated without adverse environmental effects, or if repea!
ted applications will continue to improve crop yields. The use of organic residuals does show potential for mitigating the effects of some weeds, possibly reducing the amount of herbicides used in crop production.

J.H. Edwards and R.H. Walker, "Using Organic Residuals on Highly Erodible Soil," BIOCYCLE, February, 1997. 

Despite significant growth in the organic products industry over the last decade, organic farming is still a less than notable part of institutional agricultural research, according to a study by the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). The report, "Searching for the 'O' Word," conducted as part of the foundation's National Organic Policy Analysis project, found that "systematic research on organic farming is still taboo in many institutions."

The analysis project set out to assess USDA research programs with respect to organic farming. OFRF used the Current Research Information System (CRIS), a database of abstracts for 30,000 research projects which received federal funding from the USDA. Using a range of 75 key words which would identify research as "organic research," 300 projects were identified in the database as "pertinent to organic farming systems." OFRF found that of the 300 projects, only 15 (five percent) were premier, pertinent organic systems research projects. 42 additional projects were found to have "organic-potential…examining the processes that make natural farming systems work."

The report is critical of the USDA’s apparent lack of commitment to sustainable agriculture research. "Sixteen years after a [USDA task force] report, despite a stated national goal to dramatically reduce pesticide use….there has been no deliberate implementation of the 1980 Report’s recommendations for organic farming research. There is no analysis of the role that organic farming can play in meeting national agricultural and environmental needs, and there is no explicit policy commitment to even explore these questions," the report states.

The report contained several recommendations for increased organic research. First, the USDA should  make a commitment in policy acknowledging organic farming’s role in U.S. agricultural, environmental and economic development. Second, the Fund for Rural America should support and utilize organic farming research, and organic farmers should be part of review panels for these programs. Third, the USDA should allocate resources to increase the investment in organic farming research and development; all USDA research programs should consider the potential role organic farming could play within their missions and goals. Finally, the USDA should undertake a national initiative for organic farming research, including a network of dedicated organic farming experiment stations.

The report is available for $15(US) from the Organic Farming Research Foundation, PO Box 440, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 USA. E-mail:<<research@ofrf.org>>

"Study Finds Little Institutional Commitment to Organic Research," ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE NEWS, February 1997.

World Cotton Research Conference: The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization, CIRAD-CA of France, Hellenic Cotton Board of Greece and Ministry of Agriculture, Government of Greece is organizing the World Cotton Research Conference-2 (WCRC-2)in Athens, Greece from September 6-12, 1998. The WCRC-2 will cover all aspects of production research, however, emphasis will be paid to control of insects pests of cotton, which has become the most significant aspect of production technology in all cotton producing countries of the world. For more information, contact Rafiq Chaudhry, Head, Technical Information Section, ICAC, 1629 'K' Street NW, Suite 702, Washington, D.C. 20006 USA. Ph: +01/202/463/6660; Fax: +01/202/463/6950; E-mail: <<rafiq@icac.org>>