Organic thread

Even as Bt cotton invaded Indian fields in the past few years, some farmer groups kept pushing for organic cotton. In 2009-10, production in India propelled world organic cotton production to an all-time high of 241,697 tonnes. But soon, many farmers realised that organic farming takes years of sustained efforts to get full benefits. With no support from government, that favours Bt cotton, many farmers are reverting to chemical farming.

Aparna Pallavi reports from the cotton belt of Maharasthra and Madhya Pradesh, and M Suchitra from Andhra Pradesh. Jyotika Sood writes about international non-profits that are venturing into alternative methods of sustainable cotton production

By Jyotika Sood, M Suchitra, Aparna Pallavi
Published: Thursday 28 February 2013

Organic thread

organic cotton

Nakka Pushpa was only 22 when her debt-ridden husband committed suicide 18 years ago. The marginal cotton farmer in Damera village in Andhra Pradesh’s Warangal district left her land fallow for the next 10 years. She had no money to buy seeds and farming inputs. In 2004, Sarvodaya Youth Organisation, a Warangal-based non-profit, offered her help provided she kept off chemicals and used non-Bt cotton seeds. Initially, she was laughed at for using cowdung and urine, and going for inter-cropping and pest traps. But Pushpa did not give up. Last year, she harvested 1,800 kilograms of organic cotton from her one acre (0.4 hectare) land, besides a few hundred kilograms of lentils, maize, vegetables, and some castor too. “Harvest would have been better had it not been a drought year,” she says.

She is happy with the drastic cut in cost—from Rs 10,000 during chemical cultivation to only Rs 3,600. Last year, she earned Rs 20,000, cleared all her husband’s debts and is building a small house in place of her hut.

Vivek and Juli Cariappa
'Organic cotton production and consumption should become a mass movement'
Vivek and Juli Cariappa are Krishi Pandit awardees and dedicated organic farmers based in H D Kote taluk in Mysore. They have been practising organic farming since 1986. In an telephonic interview with M Suchitra, they talk about the challenges and way forward for organic cotton
Pushpa’s tiny success story is part of an encouraging big picture. In the past few years, India has become the world leader in organic cotton production. Nearly 200,000 farmers have turned organic, although Bt cotton still accounts for nearly 95 per cent of cultivation in the country.

In 2002, government had allowed commercial cultivation of genetically modified cotton. The area under Bt cotton increased steeply from a few thousand hectares to 9.5 million ha in 2010, increasing consumption of chemical pesticides and fertlisers as well. Estimates, including those of Food and Agriculture Organisation, say an acre of non-organic cotton cultivation can consume up to six litres of pesticides and 500 kg of fertilisers. This not only diminished land productivity but also led to health problems.

But the organic movement began despite the problems. Efforts by farmers’ groups and non-profits gave the required push. The first farmers’ group to export organic cotton—Vidarbha Organic Farmers Association (VOFA)—was formed in 1995. Around the same time, non-profits in Vidarbha like Dharamitra and Chetna Vikas created indigenous knowledge banks by documenting the practices of tribal farmers.

Farmer-driven experiments in organic cotton cultivation also started in different regions in the early 1990s. This was expected because cost of chemical cultivation had been rising. Slump in yield after the initial spurt brought on by high yielding hybrids and chemical inputs made matters worse.

In mid-1990s, pioneering farmers like Bhaskar Save and Kantilal Patel in Gujarat and Manohar Parchure, Anandrao Subhedar and Raosaheb Dagadkar in Vidarbha in Maharashtra created successful organic cotton cultivation models. They were all inspired by the books of Japanese organic farming guru Masanobu Fukuoka, but had to develop indigenous techniques and knowledge.

In 2000, Central Institute for Cotton Research released a first-of-its-kind report on organic cotton cultivation. Several researches followed. None reached farmers. Public programmes like Integrated Pest Management have existed since 1965, but government did little to pass on its benefits to farmers.

In Andhra Pradesh, M S Chari, cotton scientist from Centre for World Solidarity, introduced the concept of non-pesticide management among marginal Dalit farmers of Warangal and Adilabad districts and followed it up with the concept of sustainable agriculture in 2001.

Private companies like Maikal Bio-Re, Appachi Cotton, Pratibha Syntex and Ecofarms also began contract farming with the farmers of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. Despite an overwhelming majority of Bt cotton farms, the factors combined to boost India’s organic cotton production, and eventually global production, to an all-time high in 2009-10.

India captures global market

From 57,731 tonnes in 2006-07, the world’s organic cotton production soared two-and-a-half times to 145,872 tonnes the next year. By 2009-10, it saw a stupendous fourfold jump to 241,697 tonnes. India accounted for 68 per cent of world organic cotton production in 2008-09. The share rose to 81 per cent in 2009-10 (see ‘India the biggest contributor’).

India the biggest contributor


Around 2006, big international retailers began to turn organic. A 2007 report by UK-based Soil Association showed that retail organic market was valued at US $4 billion. Organic cotton accounted for a large chunk of it. Swedish multinational H&M started blending organic cotton in its products. In 2006-07, companies like C&A, Eileen Fisher and H&M reported stronger than expected sale in their organic portfolio. Twenty-five companies, including Walmart, Nike, Woolworth’s South Africa, Coop Switzerland and C&A, consumed 75 per cent of global organic produce.

A report on organic cotton by Textile Exchange, a non-profit which works to extend textile sustainability across the globe, states that from US $300 million in 2001, sale of organic clothing had reached $2 billion in 2007. And, India was a major player. It overtook Turkey as the biggest producer and exporter of organic cotton. However, farmers recieved no support from the government. What kept them going was premium that private companies gave over the government’s minimum support price (MSP).

Organic incentives

MSP of long staple cotton had been raised from Rs 2,030 to Rs 3,000 per 100 kilograms in 2008-09, while that of medium staple cotton went up from Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,500 per 100 kilograms. “Organic farmers were getting a huge 25 per cent premium over MSP,” says Kamal Kishore Dhiran, farmer of Palodhi village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district.

This apart, organic farming has its own advantages. Under rain-fed conditions, organic cotton flowers twice in a season, says farmer Tilok Chand Bhuria of Khamlai village in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargon district. “Bt, on the other hand, flowers only once a season unless irrigated very well.” Bhuria switched to organic with help from Maikaal Bio-Re six years ago. His cultivation cost has dropped. “In Bt the maximum saving is Rs 5,000 per acre. After converting to organic farming, I can save Rs 10,000,” he says (see ‘Organic v chemical’). 

organic cotton

Additional income for organic farmers comes from intercropping. In Pandhurna village of Yavatmal, Kawdu Punwatkar harvests 150 kg of lentils, vegetables and jowar, besides 200 kg of cotton from his one-acre farm.

Jaswant Singh Chauhan in Amlatha village of Khargon, who switched to organic a few years back, says his farm’s soil is now better and conserves more moisture. “In the past two years, I harvested 30 kg more cotton, besides lentil and jowar.” Organic cotton seed is an untapped source of income. “It is high in demand for its fodder value and fetches thrice the price of Bt cotton seed,” says farmer Subhash Kamdi of Madni Dindora village in Wardha. Kamdi sells seeds generated from his 2.5-acre organic cotton plot for Rs 30 per kg.

Group certification cuts cost

Most organic farmers operate in groups formed by non-profits or exporters. Being part of a group has its benefits. Farmers are spared the entire cost and effort behind the complicated certification process, says Rajeev Baruah, director of Maikaal Bio-Re. “Certification costs Rs 500 per farmer. There are additional administrative and field costs.

Group certification makes it easy for farmers and us,” he says. Organisations also bear the cost of transport and ensure transparent weighing, which is handled by farmer cooperatives. Since cotton is collected from villages, farmers do not have to pay market cess or shell out money to touts and middlemen. A farmer saves at least Rs 300 per 100 kg, estimates Arun Chandra Ambatipudi, executive director of Chetna Organics, a non-profit that promotes organic cotton cultivation in Andhra Pradesh. “Chemical farmers have to pay these extra expenses and end up earning less,” he says. This year in Andhra Pradesh, chemical farmers got Rs 3,600 per 100 kg while organic farmers earned Rs 3,900, as much as the MSP.

But the curve of India’s organic cotton production reversed in 2010-11. Production dropped by a steep 47 per cent although India maintained its world lead with over 60 per cent share.

World market falls

India, which had flushed the global market with its organic cotton, created a glut of sorts. At this time, the German edition of Financial Times published a report in early 2010, titled “Label Scandal”. It stated that global clothing brands such as H&M, C&A and Tchibo were selling clothes made of Bt contaminated organic cotton. These brands were sourcing organic cotton from India. Sanjay Dave, the then director of Agriculture Processing and Exports Development Agency (APEDA) in India, admitted that organic cotton was getting contaminated “on a gigantic scale” in the country (see ‘Farmers on shaky ground’).

Mani Chinnaswami of Tamil Nadu-based Appachi Cotton says the scandal, along with more complaints of contamination, reduced India’s cotton prices. “Besides, European economy was reeling from recesssion. Introduction of alternative initatives that did not insist on cotton grown with less pesticides and water, also gave competition to the expensive organic cotton,” he says. The sharp cut in prices trickled down to the farmers and the premium that private companies were giving them crashed drastically.

In the past two years, companies like Ecofarms have not given any premium to farmers. Earlier, says Dhiran, the company paid 10 per cent or more. This year, Maikal Bio-Re has fixed premium at Rs 460 per 100 kg, while Pratibha Syntex is giving Rs 100 over the market rate.


The drop in premium has hit farmers hard. In irrigated areas, especially in the Khargon-Khandwa-Burhanpur belt of Madhya Pradesh, farmers say keeping cost down is difficult given the rising expenses on labour and power for irrigation. “Cotton prices in the market are abysmal,” says Rajesh Patidar who is registered with Pratibha Syntex. “If premium is also low why should we continue with labour-intensive organic farming?”

Bhuria says premium of Rs 1,000 per 100 kg is necessary. “A few years ago, 20-25 per cent premium made organic farming viable. Now, when picking one kilogram cotton can cost Rs 15, how do we manage without premium?”

Without the incentive, says Chinnaswami, farmers would turn to chemicals. “Whose loss would that be?”

Selling organic

The biggest hurdle before organic cotton is that in the absence of a domestic market, it is entirely dependent on the vagaries of the international market. Organic groups are finding it increasingly difficult to market their cotton. Much of the produce has to be sold in the open market. “We have the potential to produce 1,700 tonnes of lint a year. Of this, we can market only 800 tonnes. The rest is sold to Cotton Corporation of India,” says Ambatipudi. Farmers have to bear the price cuts.

The good news, however, is that the international market is likely to revive soon, says Prabha Nagarajan, India representative of Textile Exchange. “Many big brands and retailers have indicated continuation of organic cotton programmes as part of their sustainable cotton initiatives,” she says. D P Arya of Pratibha Syntex, Indore, world leader in organic textile manufacturing, says buyers in the UK and the US are again taking interest in organic cotton.

But there is an urgent need for alternatives to total dependence on international market. “The potential is enormous even if brands focus on segments such as infant and baby wear, yoga clothing, lingerie and sleepwear. High-end men’s and women’s apparel could also work,” says Nagarajan. “At present, there are very few players in the domestic market for apparel. Big domestic brands and retailers need to get engaged with serious intent. This would need a multi-stakeholder approach and support from the government.”

While organic cotton, like any other market product, is subject to market laws governing demand and supply, commerce cannot be the only determining factor governing its future. Crucial factors like sustainability, farm economics, ecological balance and soil health must be taken into account. Formulating right policies to provide support farmers’ initiatives will go a long way in the evolution of organic cotton.

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