Organic Cotton: Hard to Grow

Organic Cotton: Hard to Grow

Some consumers profess a preference for organic cotton, and advocates have been successful in cultivating positive connotations for organic cotton as being soft, healthy, and sustainable. If there is a market, you would think someone would be willing to supply it, but world production of certified organic cotton (cotton that has been certified to have been produced to USDA or EU organic standards by an accredited certification authority) has been falling.

World production of organic cotton grew from very small amounts in the early 1990s to a peak of 175,000 tons in 2008/09. The most recent data reported by the Textile Exchange (http://textileexchange.org/publications/)is that production fell to 108,000 tons of lint on 302,000 hectares in 2015/16, indicating that the average organic yield was 357 kilograms of lint per hectare, less than half the world average.

There are no published data on organic cotton for 2016/17 and 2017/18, but if production were rising, advocates would be quick to publicize that fact. Therefore, it is probable that production of organic cotton has not climbed, at least not very much, during the most recent two seasons.

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In 2015/16, India accounted for 60,000 tons of organic cotton production, 55% of the world total, followed by China, 15,000 tons, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, 8,000 tons apiece, and Tajikistan, 6,000 tons. A big part of the reason for the decline in world organic cotton production is because production in India fell from 103,000 tons in 2011/12 to the current level.

Production of organic cotton in Turkey is falling as farmers shift to alternative crops and because of political unrest in the Southeastern portion of the country near Syria. Production is rising in Central Asia under the influence of programs supported by the Government of Switzerland, but much of the organic cotton produced is marketed simply as cotton without an organic premium. Worldwide, only about 70% of the cotton certified as organic is actually purchased as organic cotton; the rest is sold as conventional cotton because of weak demand.

Organic Cotton Techniques

All agriculture was organic for thousands of years until around the end of World War II, and today any farmer, anywhere, could grow organic cotton if he or she chose to. Just as weaving cloth using a traditional hand loom requires great skill and many hours of effort compared with using a modern loom, so does organic cotton require skill and effort compared with producing conventional cotton. Nevertheless, any farmer wanting to grow cotton organically could do so.

Organic cotton is grown and harvested without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, growth regulators or defoliants. Cultivation practices vary, but the use of seeds with biotech traits, synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and growth regulators are prohibited. Since organic cotton producers are denied the use of tools that conventional farmers use, it obviously takes more work to grow organic cotton.

Organic cotton production is a farming system that encourages the development of biological diversity to take care of crops needs.The foundations of organic cotton production include the use of locally-adapted varieties tolerant of pests, legume-based crop diversification, crop rotations, and intercropping to maintain soil health, the use of organic sources of fertilizer, and pest management based on prevention through the use of natural enemies and trap crops.

Fertile soil containing organic carbon is a prerequisite for all crop production, including cotton production. In organic systems, soil fertility is enhanced by implementing crop rotations with legumes, using cover crops to protect soil between the harvest of one crop and the planting of a succeeding crop, composting green plant material to produce organic fertilizer, and mulching. Fertilizer mined from natural sources can be used to improve fertility, but synthetic fertilizers must not be used.

On average, a farmer producing one hectare of organic cotton must collect between 15 tons and 50 tons of green material, including cotton stalksand farm yard manure, and compost that material for a year to produce between 3 tons and 8 tons of organic fertilizer. The 3-8 tons of organic fertilizer must then be spread over a field and incorporated into the soil.

In contrast, a conventional farmer will also employ crop rotations, cover crops, and mulches, but a conventional farmer will apply an average of 250 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare per year. The purchased fertilizer will contain labelled proportions of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), while the NPK balance in organic fertilizer will vary with the green material from which it was produced.

Cotton plant nutrient requirements will vary each season depending on temperatures, rainfall and pest pressure, and conventional farmers can respond with additional fertilizer applications as plant needs are assessed. In contrast, organic cotton farmers have a much more difficult time applying additional dosages of tons of organic fertilizer across fields once plants are established.

In organic cotton systems, weed management is achieved through the selection of fields free of perennial weeds, use of clean seeds, crop rotations, cover crops, and mulches, and of course weeding using a hoe or mechanical cultivation. Organic cotton farmers can also expose top soil to direct sunlight to sterilize soil. Conventional cotton farmers are free to use each of these techniques of weed control, but they are also eligible to use herbicides.

Pest management in organic cotton is achieved through the use of pest-tolerant varieties, conservation of natural enemies and releases of predators, parasites and pathogens to attack pests. Organic cotton farmers are encouraged to intercrop with cowpea to serve as habitat for beneficial insects. Organic farmers use trap crops, such as castor, marigold and okra to attract pests or pest larvae for easier destruction. Light traps on timers, bird perches, and pheromone traps are additional techniques of pest management in organic cotton. Neem-based sprays are permitted, although the efficacy of such applications is questionable. After all, if neem-based sprays worked, all farmers would use them. Sprays containing Bacilusthuringensis (Bt) are also allowed. Organic cotton farmers are permitted to release parasites into fields. Early sowing, early picking and the cultivation of short-season varieties will also aid in pest management.

Conventional cotton producers are free to use all of these techniques, and they also have access to insecticides. However, the use of insecticides will kill beneficial insects as well as target pest, requiring judicious use.

Declining Organic Cotton Production in India

India is the largest producer of organic cotton because it has a large textile base for processing, and because it is easier to navigate the business environment in India than in China. However, production is declining in India for a multitude of reasons. The primary reason that more cotton is not produced under organic cotton standards in India is because it takes twice as much work. One hectare of organic cotton in India requires around 170 days of labor per year, compared with 90 days per year for conventional cotton.

Another reason for the decline in organic cotton production is that price premiums are falling. Almost all organic production around the world is sponsored by brands and retailers seeking differentiation in the market place or by governments wanting to encourage sustainable production practices and economic development. Prior to the world recession in 2008, most retailers were profitable, and some had budgets to support organic cotton as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts or for positive public relations. However, many of those retailers lost money during the recession, ending such expensive gestures.

As of 2018, there are still not enough brands and retailers willing to enter into contracts of at least three years (the period required to convert designated acreage from conventional to organic production) with growers at prices that would offset the cost of conversion from conventional cotton, increased labor requirements, greater year-to-year variability in organic yields and lower average fiber quality. Excellent growers with sound agronomic knowledge require premiums of about 20%, but average growers experience greater yield losses compared with conventional production, and they require correspondingly greater premiums. However, premiums paid in India for organic cotton have fallen from 15% to 5% over the last decade.

Organic cotton farmers face other barriers to increased production, including a lack of seed breeding efforts focused on non-biotech varieties with desirable fiber traits, the need for extensive documentation and the vestiges of scandals involving false documentation that undermine the credibility of Indian organic cotton certification, and a lack of markets for cowpea, okra and other crops used as rotation crops or intercrops with organic cotton.

The Future

Organic cotton takes a lot of work and a lot of knowledge, and without price premiums of 20% or more, organic cotton will not be grown in any volume.

World textile and clothing markets are highly competitive, and consumers base purchase decisions on style, color, fit, feel, price and other metrics. In inflation adjusted terms, prices of apparel at the retail level are declining, not rising, and consumers are spending a smaller share of their disposable incomes on commodity items such as clothing. Consequently, outside of niche brands with low volumes and high prices catering to an urban clientele ignorant of the realities of agriculture, no buyers of organic cotton are likely to emerge who are willing to pay such premiums. The chance that large retailers accounting for hundreds of thousands of tons of cotton per year will start paying premiums for organic cotton are remote.

Consequently, production of organic cotton worldwide is more likely to continue downward than to rise.