Organic cotton production - going beyond the numbers

Liesl Truscott - 07 May 2012

Cotton workers in India

Credit bioRe India

A new report from Textile Exchange reveals a changing landscape for organic cotton. Previously, we’ve watched production figures rising yet felt a sense of unease about the number of critical issues brewing below the surface, masked by the great numbers we were reporting. This year that has all changed. But the story is not all bad. On one hand we have seen a significant decline of over 35% in production volumes (for reasons I’ll explain soon). On the other, we are seeing the resilience and expansion of organic cotton programs where robust and supportive business models are evident (more about this later).

Four big influencers

The abrupt decline in production this year came as a surprise for some but for most the drop was anticipated. We’ve put the decline down to four main reasons:

  • The first being the growing dominance of genetically modified cotton seed (GMO). This is having a number of impacts on the viability of organic production ranging from scarcity of non-GMO seed supply (in places such as India, Pakistan, and Burkina Faso), through to the decline in seed quality (of non-GMO) since seed companies are putting most of their research dollars into genetic engineering. And, of course, there’s the threat of contamination of organic cotton by the genetically modified varieties where boundaries in the field and separation in processing is not carefully adhered to. 
  • The second reason we cited was to do with the tightening of production, tracking, and export rules in India, by the Indian agricultural export department, APEDA. While ultimately this is seen as a good thing for improving confidence by the market in the authenticity of Indian organic cotton, tougher requirements have certainly knocked off some of the more speculative players, and detracted some of the newer production groups. It’s worth mentioning that APEDA and their stakeholders are still fine-tuning Tracenet, their organic certification system, so there is likely to be more refinement in the short to medium term.
  • The third reason we believe is to do with the global economic situation generally; the combination of a volatile (and spiking) raw materials market coupled with conservatism in trade (post-economic crisis) is affecting the commodity exchange, and having a knock-on effect for organic. 
  • And finally, the fourth reason is a growing interest in some of the newer ‘easier entry’ sustainability programs. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), ‘Cleaner Cotton’, and others aimed at making mainstream production ‘better’ are appealing to growers and brands alike (albeit for different reasons) wanting to begin the sustainability journey on a more gentle learning curve. Where organic is ‘absolute’ the newer programs are ‘relative’ and based on performance improvement cycles.

The positives

Turning to the positive, we did see some very healthy production expansion figures coming through this year as well. Producers in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) are expanding organic cotton and also diversifying their organic cash crops. Kyrgyzstan entered the ‘top 10’ producers list for the first time. Growth by some groups in practically every country continues to expand.

Our long standing pioneers (too many to name here and risk missing some out!) are evolving all the time too and moving into other areas of sustainability such as addressing carbon, water harvesting, value adding, food security, and contributing to social services within their communities, to name but a few of the many innovative and exciting ventures.

Where to go now

I encourage you to join the conversations and debates here and on the Textile Exchange farm blog, the Organic cotton community platform, and any other places you can.

Liesl Truscott is director of Textile Exchange's Farm team.

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Clive Raymond
17 May 2012 13:32

There is a lack of men's wear made of organic cotton, if you except casual tee shirts,etc.

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