'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

By M Suchitra
Published: Saturday 16 February 2013

imageBefore taking up organic cotton were you growing conventional cotton?

No. We started organic farming 28 years ago. Organic farming is our way of life. Organic cotton cultivation was started in 1991. In our opinion, there cannot be anything called conventional cotton now. It must be either BT or organic. There is nothing in between.

How big is your farm?

We steward six hectares of irrigated area and eight hectares of rainfed area. Cotton is cultivated in two hectares (ha) and we get at an average six to eight quintals per 0.4 ha.

How do you market cotton?

We do not sell raw cotton. We gin it and make the cotton lint into yarn using facilities in the textile industry and then weave the yarn into fabric using handloom and small household power-loom weavers. The dyeing is done on the farm, extracting dyes grown by us. Then we design and have garments fabricated at a friend’s organic and fair trade certified facility. Finally, the finished garments are sold usually at exhibitions or through stores like Elements in Calicut and Casablanca in Puducherry.

Where do you sell the garments? In domestic market or do you export them?

We do not believe in exporting. We hold exhibitions. And for us cotton is not something for making profit alone. We use it as an interface to hold dialogue with consumers on a broad range of issues from seed sovereignty, environmental issues to personal responsibility.

Could you elaborate?

During garment-making with power looms, there is a process called sizing of cotton. In this, each thread of cotton is starched. For this process, one kilogram (kg) of cotton needs 1.6 kg of firewood is used. Besides, starch is imported from the US and most probably it would be from GM corn. Besides this, tallow, which is beef fat, is also used. So, every thread is coated with beef fat. Imagine that the 1857 Uprising began because the cartridges used were being greased using beef or pork fat, which the soldiers refused to touch—both Hindus and Muslims. Today, the consumer does not think about these issues. The small power loom or handloom sector still uses tapioca flour or rice starch. There is much violence and destruction of resources behind each garment that is manufactured by automated factories and looms. Just as it was in the pre-independence times in the mills of Manchester, consumer choice determines technology. For us cotton is a tool to make consumers think about all these aspects. Further, all conventional cotton today is GM/Bt cotton, (ill)logically then anyone and everyone who wears non-organic cotton is supporting Bt cotton and in turn is enriching the US giant Monsanto. Nearly all brands use fabric without concern to these issues. Talking about these issues make some people think and others usually get disgusted or horrified and refuse to acknowledge our point of view and stick us into the lunatic fringe.

Does the government support organic farmers?

Lip service is given to the organic sector as it is fashionable today. Even though huge amounts in some states have been allocated for organic farming in the recent past, not much has changed in the fields. Meanwhile, the government has been consciously promoting BT cotton by creating ways of easy entry with no accountability and huge profits for the GM seed companies, even altering laws to accommodate them. Take the case of Karnataka where the state government allowed the public sector seed company to destroy all its non-Bt cotton seeds, thereby ensuring that there was no alternative to Bt seeds in the market and the farming community was forced to buy Bt seeds, then claiming that Bt cotton was a runaway success, as the farmers had adopted Bt seeds in a huge way. Today, in H D Kote taluk about 98 per cent cotton farmers are using BT seeds.

From where do you get non-BT seeds?

Non-BT hybrids were available till two years ago. We grow many varieties so that we keep select seed year after year.

Is there any ongoing research in new non-Bt seed?

Unfortunately, in the case of hybrids the private sector has abandoned research into non-Bt cotton seed as the profit is greater in the Bt sector, Varietal research was always done by the agriculture universities, University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) at Dharwad being the leader in the field of both hybrids and varieties. As the government stopped funding for research the university has slowed down. There is a distinct move by government; to subvert public sector agricultural input production and research so as to allow multinationals to move in to fill the vacuum thus created.

Do you mean to say all is already lost? Is there absolutely no research to find alternatives to Bt cotton?

Not all. Had it not been for some committed non-profits, scientists, farmers, consumers and discerning citizens all would have been lost. Had civil society not closed ranks and fought back India would have had been the experimental ground for all GM research, not Bt cotton alone.

We have made an effort with UAS Dharwad, under the direction of S S Patil, senior cotton breeder. Since the government (even the Organic Farming Mission) refused to fund non-Bt cotton seed research, we approached our friend J Shennoy, MD of Mangalore Ganesh Beedis in Mysore, to help us finance the required research at UAS-Dharwad as they had uncontaminated germplasm.

The trials commenced last year with 56 non-Bt varieties and hybrids in four places in Karnataka, our farm being one. Other trials have been undertaken by discerning non-profits like Chetna and Bio-re. Many varieties have shown great promise and better results than existing Bt hybrids.

Why Mangalore Ganesh Beedis? They have no link to the textile or seed industry.

Well, not only do they know us personally, both Shennoy and their advisor R P Das appreciated the fact that the nation was on the brink of losing its seed sovereignty in cotton, as all seeds in the market were proprietary seeds using genes patented by multinationals. It was their patriotism and concern for nature that convinced them to commit an initial Rs 50 lakh to this seed research project, without any profit to their company whatsoever. Also, any seed developed from this initiative will be gifted to the farmers of the nation and will not be patented.

The Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel had recommended not to grow BT cotton in the Western Ghats region. Your comments

Recommendations remain recommendations; no policy decisions have made so far regarding this. Ironically, the Supreme Court had asked all states to mark ecologically sensitive zones around the national parks and stipulated that “exotic crops” should not be grown therein. Why GM crops were not included in the definition of exotic crops is confusing. Intense lobbying by the GM industry, the administration and people in high places must have had something to do with this perhaps.

But doesn’t Karnataka have an organic policy?

Yes, it had formulated its organic policy in 2004. But it has never taken up seed issues seriously. UAS-Dharwad is the only place in the country where the germplasm of the non-Bt variety of cotton is not contaminated. But the government is not allotting funds for research, development and production of seeds. Most of the agriculture department officials and scientists have linked up with big seed companies.

In 2011, the state had constituted an Organic Farming Mission including farmers among the members of the commission. I was a member of it. The government had allotted Rs 100 crore for popularising organic farming for the financial year. Just like the fertilizer policy, we advised the government to formulate a “compost policy”. It became a much-used phrase for a few days but nothing happened. Recently, I met the agriculture minister and agriculture principal secretary. I have suggested the state should make it mandatory that all seed companies marketing cotton seeds in the state must ensure that of the total seeds marketed, a minimum of 20 per cent, should be non-Bt seed. The suggestion has been notified in the concerned file. What happens in the end will depend on the commitment of the government and its power politics.

Are most of the organic cotton initiatives in the country promoted by NGOs? What is your view on that?

Yes, that is true and that’s the main problem. Majority of the non-profits promote certain projects till they get funding. Then they will switch over to other projects. Sometimes, farmers move to the organic systems because there is a subsidy for it. When the subsidy stops, they return to conventional systems. We have seen this happen many times in the past.

The organic system and the ideology can become a movement only when external funding stops and Indian citizens understand the issues regarding Bt cotton and decide to pay that extra that is required to enable the cotton farmer to find economic benefit in growing non-Bt cotton organically.

At present, the organic certification process is controlled by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) under the commerce ministry. What do you have to say?

Let us look at this from a different angle. Almost all the organic cotton is produced exclusively for exports. Export comes under commerce ministry. Most of the laws concerning organic certification are to enable the foreign retailer to get a premium in their own markets to satisfy consumer demand therein. If it was the case that organic cotton was for the local Indian market then we are sure the protocol regarding organic certification would have been conducive to our needs. But the reality is that the majority of the Indian consumers have given no thought or priority to organic cotton. For the domestic market, third party certification should not be essential, but where there is a premium, usually, ethics go right out of the window. There is a need for a policeman. Then what’s wrong in APEDA controlling the certification process?

There is a strong criticism against APEDA that it does not know anything about organic farmers’ ground realities?

Let me ask you, who knows the ground realities of organic farmers? Do agriculture department and agriculture universities, scientists and general public know about it? Do the consumers or the policy makers really understand the issues? Why isolate APEDA? They are geared to the marketing aspect of organic produce, that too for export.

We may talk and write against GM crops and GM food. But how many of us are really organic in our personal life? It is because of the few discerning NGOs, consumers and farmers that have supported the organic farmer that the movement is still surviving.

Do you think even Khadi and handloom help big seed companies?

Why doubt? Unless Khadi and handlooms are using organic cotton, they are also helping companies like Monsanto by providing a market for their product. Unfortunately, the khadi board never made any effort to protect or develop cotton varieties to support the khadi industry. Gandhiji would be horriifed at this complete lack of foresight and disconnect with the source: the farming families of India.

What do you think about the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)?

It is a complete deception. To know the truth about it find out which agencies are funding BCI. The funding agencies are idealistically hollow because they have to depend on corporate companies for money. I strongly believe the aim of BCI is to kill the organic movement and pave an easy way for GM crops and foods. At present, the only threat/opposition to GM crops in the field and market is the organic movement.

But non-profits also promote BCI?

That’s the saddest part. The same non-profits that promoted organic farming are promoting BCI. No ethics, no philosophy and no ideology. The attitude is shockingly mercenary: the project exists only because the funds are available. The foreign funders specify projects that help them attain their unstated goals. This confuses and makes farmers cynical. But that is the aim. Confuse the farmer and the consumer to cheat the latter out of a premium that should, in all fairness, go to the former.

What’s the way out?

Organic should be a mass movement. At present, almost all who are engaged in organic farming are doing it for an elusive “somebody” in the market. Farmers, ginners, spinners and garment designers are working for that somebody else.

Not for their own consumption?

Organic farmers mostly sell the organic produce in the market and buy food from the public distribution system. Even organic retailers and promoters rarely take the goods they sell home to their own table. So the whole organic production system is geared for profit-making. Unless it becomes a mass production and consumption movement it will always stay on the fringe of becoming something big and remain something which is mere fashionable and frivolous. When Aamir Khan did a TV show on organic farming, there was a sudden surge in interest that sadly is only skin deep.

The sustainable way out would become reality when the middle class consumer, not just the elite, understands all the issues regarding organic production systems (issues regarding seed sovereignty, health, environment, rural sustainability) and encourage the farmers to do a better job in their fields by paying the extra (real cost) needed in the market. The environment cannot be a pollution and poison sink subsidising destructive production systems anymore. The consumer has to pay the environmental cost of sustainable production and consumption.

Because they are not so aware of all these things?

We’re talking about those who are aware of all these things. Do they show any commitment in their personal lives? In fact, organic should become a second Independence movement. Otherwise, we will become slaves of companies like Monsanto. Today, in the developed world consumers are suffering seriously from the side-effects of an economy that is funded, manipulated and directed by transnational corporations and their multi-brand retail mega supermarkets.

For organic to be a mass movement, common people should be able to afford the products. I know many who liked Khadi but could not wear it
. Your comments

Affordability is a question of priorities, isn’t it? And if organic were to get the kind of societal support and government subsidy that toxic agriculture, called the green revolution, has received then it is likely that organic food and textiles would be very affordable even for common people and for sure they would be healthier . Further, if affordability is the only criteria for consumer decision then it is evident that the future will be horrifying for the nation as cheap, junky and polluting imports from countries like China will kill local production and employment. Taking us forward into a new brand of colonialism. We shudder at the thought.

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