Organic cotton

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Cotton grown without the use of any synthetically compounded chemicals (like pesticides, growth regulators, defoliants etc) and fertilizers is called Organic Cotton.

Organic Cotton production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture.

As per the Organic Cotton report for spring 2006 from Organic Exchange, the California based non-profit organisation, which promotes organic cotton acreage and consumption globally, India produced 9,835 tonnes of organic cotton or 31.71 per cent of the world clean cotton production in 2005-6, compared with leading producer Turkey's 10,160 tonnes or 32.76 per cent of world production.

The Origins of Organic Cotton

From its initial cultivation in the Indus valley and South America in 3000 BC, up until the 1950s, global cotton production occurred predominantly without the use of hazardous agrochemicals. For some 5000 years, cotton pests were controlled by agricultural management and tillage practices. Pest cycles were taken into consideration before planting and at harvesting, crop rotations were used, and cotton was planted at lower densities to reduce the impact of pest populations.

In India, until the early 1900s, traditional crafts like Block Printing on Textiles, Kalamkari and Khadi, were usually made using Organic Cotton.

Soon after the Second World War, a number of newly discovered neurotoxic chemicals such as DDT were introduced as an alternative means of pest control. These were much cheaper and were immediately effective, so cotton farmers began to use these and former methods of pest control were largely abandoned.

Conventionally grown cotton became the most pesticide-dependant crop in the world, accounting for 25 per cent of the world’s pesticides. This propelled the resurgence of interest in Organic Cotton

CopperBytes

  • Experts believe that non-organic cotton contains chemicals that could affect consumers adversely. The chemicals left in the cotton could potentially cause everything from allergic reactions to asthma to even cancer. Moreover, chemically dyed cotton adds other potenitially harmful chemicals to the cocktail, making non-organic cotton even more potentially harmful to use.
  • Organic cotton is especially safe for people with allergies and chemical sensitivity, as well as for babies and children.
  • Organic cotton has the added advantage of safeguarding the environment, water quality and the health of people who grow, manufacture and use.
  • Choosing organic cotton helps to support organic farmers and gives motivation to conventional farmers who are trying to convert to organic practices.

The Problem with Conventional Cotton Production

Consider these facts about ordinary cotton --

  • Cotton is the world’s most important non-food agricultural commodity, yet it is responsible for the release of US $ 2 billion of chemical pesticides each year, within which at least US $ 819 million are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation.
  • Cotton accounts for sixteen per cent of global insecticide releases – more than any other single crop. It is estimated that almost one kilogram of hazardous pesticides is applied for every hectare under cotton.
  • Between one and three per cent of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least one million requiring hospitalization each year, according to a report prepared jointly for the FAO, UNEP and WHO. These figures equate to between 25 million and 77 million agricultural workers worldwide.
  • In India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for fifty four per cent of all pesticides used annually – despite occupying just five per cent of land under crops.
  • In Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest cotton exporter, toxic agrochemicals first applied to cotton fifty years ago now pollute the country’s land, air, food and drinking water.

How to Grow Organic Cotton?

Organic Cotton requires greater technical skills to cultivate, compared to cotton grown using synthetic fast acting fertilizers and insecticides. As seeds can not be treated with pesticides, Organic Cotton is particularly difficult to grow in areas vulnerable to soil-borne diseases. Organic Cotton farmers need to source organically grown cotton seed to start. In case certified organic seeds are not available, untreated and non-genetically modified seeds may be used.

Mineral nutrition of crops in organic systems comes from proper management of soil organisms that are responsible for releasing nutrients. Rather than feeding plants with fertilizer, organic farmers typically practice multiple cropping practices, crop rotation, cover cropping, animal manure additions, and the use of naturally occurring rock powders.

Weeds have to be removed manually or mechanically since chemical weed killers cannot be used. So they are controlled by a combination of cultivation, flame weeding, and other farming practices. A wide variety of insects attack cotton. Management options include trap cropping, strip cropping, and managing border vegetation to encourage high populations of native beneficials. Certain bio-pesticides using bacteria, viruses, and fungal insect pathogens are available as insect control tools.

Certification of Organic Cotton

Certification of organic cotton production adds credibility to the final product, assures the buyer of the organic status of the product and encourages payment of premium prices to farmers who engage in organic practices. When a grower or processor is certified organic, an independent organisation has verified that the company meets or exceeds defined organic standards. Certified organic farms are inspected regularly and must maintain comprehensive records of their production methods.

Certification programmes and standards vary, especially in response to regional differences, although there are general underlying concepts. However, most Organic Cotton certifications ensure two basic facts. First, that all fibres must be natural and grown organically. Second, every step in the process of cotton production (spinning, weaving, washing, etc.) has to meet certain criteria of environmental responsibility.

There are many certification agencies worldwide for organic cotton production, like International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS). Several sets of processing standards exist in Europe, like (SKAL).

However, many countries do not have certification facilities for Organic Cotton growers yet. They have to rely not only on certification by outsiders but also on the price premium decided by the certifiers.

References

  • The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton, A report by the Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK
  • The one-stop information centre for organic cotton
  • Organic Cotton production
  • Maggie's Organics -- Organic and Fair Trade Clothing