The Role of Organic Production in the Cotton Industry

Monday, September 07, 2009

A lot of people ask me about the importance of organic cotton in the global market. Although I am sympathetic to the goals of being as green as possible in the production of crops or manufactured goods, there are considerable limitations to how green some products can become. This is particularly true in the case of cotton, as the definition of organic versus traditional cotton varies from region to region, country to country. Because of this, it is very difficult to determine what really is or is not organic cotton. One thing I do know is that there's far more apparel being sold in stores around the world claiming to contain organic cotton than can possibly be supported by the small amounts of organic cotton available today; this may be the result of clever marketing or innovative manufacturing on the one hand -- or just outright deception of consumers on the other.

According to the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), the well respected cotton organization based out of Washington, DC, only about 180,000 metric tons of organic cotton are produced globally. This compares to global cotton production of 23.1 million metric tons. Hence, based on these statistics, organic cotton makes up last than 0.8 percent of global cotton production.

As I mentioned, I support efforts to promote a greener agenda for all growers and manufacturers. The ICAC, in particular, is a great proponent of improved cotton-growing practices in the poor regions of Africa and their efforts should be applauded. Nevertheless, with organic cotton making up just a fraction of the global production, I think the organic movement has a long way to go before it can prove it is truly sustainable in today's marketplace.

Following is a copy of a recent ICAC press release about organic cotton:

"The 68th Plenary Meeting of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) is underway. Speakers during a Roundtable discussion on Sunday the 6th suggested that organic cotton has the potential to provide new ideas that can influence and support wider sustainability drives in the sector. The organic cotton sector continues to grow, albeit more slowly in the global economic slowdown, reaching over 180,000 metric tons of lint in 2008/09.

Organic cotton is one option to meet the challenges of land use, food security and water scarcity. Small growers exposed to variable rainfall and problems from debt produce most organic cotton in India. Many farmers view organic cotton as a risk reduction tool, but the use of fewer purchased inputs involves a tradeoff with productivity. Often the smallest and most resource poor farmers come to organic, and in fact organic works better in marginal or tribal areas. Certification of organic cotton is expensive and in some states of India the government is supporting certification costs. Speakers conveyed a collective message that organic cotton requires technological knowledge.

An essential element of organic cotton production is to have more planning and certainty through partnerships to ensure long-term viability. Organic cotton production, processing, spinning and marketing at the retail level involve a long and complex chain requiring traceability and communication links between producers and consumers. The future of organic cotton production may involve contract farming with direct links to retailers."

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