Organic cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) occupies a tiny niche of far less than 1% of global cotton production. In Africa, organic cotton cultivation is reported in Benin, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
There are a number of reasons to grow cotton organically. The negative impacts of conventional cotton farming on the environment and health are obvious and well known. Given that 60% of the cotton weight harvest is cotton seed that is processed to edible oil and cattle feed, farmers realize that the bigger part of cotton production enters the human food chain. Pesticides sprayed on cotton do not only affect the target pest. Beneficial insects and other animals are killed, too, so that pests that formerly were of minor importance now have become a major problem (for example, whitefly and aphids).
Marketing and organic certification
Farmers planning to sell their produce as “organic” in domestic or export markets need to be certified as organic. Farmers need to strictly follow national regulations and organic standards of their respective target country. A premium price is possible only if there is mutual trust between producers and consumers. The organic farmer also needs to be protected against unfair competition from other farmers who use the term “organic” in a fraudulent way.
Organic standards define the minimum criteria to be fulfilled.
Organic Standards in Cotton Farming
- No application of any synthetic fertilizer such as UREA, NPK, DAP, etc.
- No application of synthetic pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides) or growth promoters
- No use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) such as Bt-cotton varieties
- Crop rotation (no cotton after cotton in the same field in two subsequent farming seasons) and/or intercropping
- Prevent spray drift from neighboring conventional fields, e g. growing border crops
- Maintain records and documents for inspection and certification
Requirements of Cotton Crop
- High temperature (30°)
- Long vegetation period
- Ample sunshine
- Dry climate
- Minimum 500mm rainfall or irrigation
- Deep soils
- Heavy clay soils, ideally black cotton soils (vertisols)
- No waterlogging
- Strong root growth in the first two weeks
- Natural bud shedding (only approximately 1/3 flowers develop bolls)
- Plant compensates for damage through increased growth
Soil fertility management
Organic cotton has to be grown in rotation with other crops. Rotation helps to improve and maintain soil fertility and ensures balanced nutrient contents in the soil. If cotton is grown continually on the same field, yields are likely to decrease.
Depending on the climatic conditions, the market situation and the availability of land, there are a number of suitable rotation patterns, with cotton grown every alternate or every third year. Choosing the most suitable rotation pattern for a particular farm depends on a number of factors: soil, irrigation facilities, crop prices, market access, and the farmer’s skills and preferences.
On organic farms, cotton should not be grown in the same field two years in a row. If cotton is repeatedly grown in the same field, the soil nutrients get depleted, pest populations increase and there is a risk for soil-borne diseases. At least for one year, but preferably for two years, another crop should be grown between two cotton crops. If the size of the land restricts farmers to repeat the crop, they should use an intercrop (moong bean, cowpea, or chickpea, for harvesting) or a green manure crop (sun hemp or cowpea, to be cut and ploughed back into the soil before flowering).
Good yields are achieved when cotton is grown after pulses (soy bean, chickpea, pigeon pea, groundnut etc.), horticultural crops like chillies or vegetables, and after sugar-cane and wheat. Organic farmers in particular should take care to include pulses in the rotation, as they increase the nitrogen content in the soil by fixing nitrogen from the air.
There are a number of natural pesticides that can be used in organic cotton cultivation, and organic farmers continuously try out new ones. However, little scientific research has been done on the efficiency of most of the locally prepared formulations. Therefore, farmers are encouraged to do their own experiments and trials to find out which natural pesticides are most suitable for their farms. Natural pesticides also affect beneficial insect populations and should be used only when necessary. Some plant extracts are also toxic to humans and animals and should be used carefully.
Neem (Azadirachta indica)
Ingredients: Neem kernel extract, containing azadirachtin Target pests: Sucking pests, jassids, bollworms, thrips
Preparation: Farm-made: Pound 30g neem kernels (that is the seed from which the seed coat has been removed) and mix with 1litre of water. Leave overnight. The next morning, filter the solution through a fine cloth and use immediately for spraying. It should not be further diluted.
Remarks: Sprays from neem seed or leaf extract do not kill the insects but reduce their feeding, moving and multiplying rates. Therefore, the effect is not noticeable until after few days. The main advantage of using neem is that it is not harmful to most beneficial insects. To a limited extent, neem’s active substance is also absorbed by the plants and thus affects the pest when they feed on the crop.
Ingredients: Powdered flower heads or liquid extracts of a daisy-like chrysanthemum
Target pests: Red cotton bug, cutworms, grasshoppers Remarks: Pyrethrum causes immediate paralysis or death to most insects, but also affects beneficial insects.
Harvest and post-harvest handling
Quality issues in cotton picking
The quality of the cotton harvest depends on the length of the fiber (staple length), on the degree of contamination with non-fiber material such as leaves or dust, and on the portion of fiber damaged by pest or disease infestation.
Good-quality raw material helps to produce yarns and garments of high quality, and thus eventually contributes to the market success of the organic cotton project. When cotton buyers fix prices, they usually take into consideration the quality of the cotton seed.
Measures taken to improve the quality of the harvest that directly pay off for the farmers:
- Allow the cotton bolls to fully ripen and open.
- Pick the cotton after the morning dews have dried up, so that the cotton is dry and less prone to fungus when being stored.
- Pick the cotton into clean cotton cloth material, never into nylon or other synthetics (foreign fibers).
- Remove leaves, capsules and damaged bolls from the cotton harvest.
- Keep cotton of lesser quality separate with the help of a second, smaller picking bag.
- Picking delays can cause reduction of fiber quality, as the opened bolls are exposed to dew, dust and honeydew from insects longer.
- No unripe cotton is picked, as it will not absorb the dye well enough and thus is priced lower.
A major cost factor in cotton production is the labor required for cotton picking. The following suggestions might help to increase the efficiency of cotton picking, and to ensure a high quality harvest:
- Use a long sack so that the weight rests on the ground;
- Keep the sack permanently open with a ring of flexible wood;
- Pick two rows at a time;
- Keep a separate, smaller bag for second-grade cotton.
If farmers store the harvested cotton before selling it, they should take care to prevent contamination from dust or chemicals, especially fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum. Never use any storage pest control (DDT) on the harvested cotton! No foreign fiber material (from clothes, human hair etc.) shall get into the cotton, as it can affect the quality of the yarn.
The storage place needs to be clean and dry. Damp conditions can lead to the growth of fungus, with significant loss of cotton quality. When organic harvest is stored in the same facilities with conventional cotton (in ginneries), care must be taken to clearly separate the organic, in-conversion and non-organic produce, and to avoid any mixing.
Strategies in cotton production
Farmers’ income from a crop depends on the yields, the costs of production, and the price gotten on the market, and the production risk involved. Thus, there are four ways farmers can earn a better and more sustainable income through organic production:
- By increasing and sustaining crop yields through improved soil fertility;
- By reducing costs of production (for off-farm inputs);
- By getting a better price for their produce (organic premium, market access);
- By reducing the risks of production (droughts and pest damage).
Organic farmers get the maximum benefit when they manage to combine all these approaches.
With organic cotton, farmers follow one of two different strategies to achieve good profits:
- First strategy as “intensive organic”, aims at achieving high yields through optimum nutrient supply and crop care. Farmers following this strategy typically buy organic manures from outside (cow dung, oil cakes), irrigate their fields intensively and take a number of measures to protect their crops. This is a strategy typically followed by farmers with more resources (larger land holdings, good irrigation facilities, fertile soils).
- Second strategy as “low cost, low risk”, aims at reducing production costs and the risk of production, targeting medium yields. Farmers produce all inputs on the farm itself (compost, botanical pesticides, liquid manures etc.) and perform farming activities with family labor. This low external-input strategy can help to reduce risk in areas of frequent crop loss due to droughts, water-logging or theft, as farmers need to invest less money into the crop. It is not possible to draw a clear line between the two strategies. Still, this basic distinction can help farmers to make their farming more profitable, and extension services to adjust their services to the requirements of different farmers.
Sources and References
Enda Pronat1 (2011). Food crops grown by organic cotton farmers in West Africa [Accessed 13 July 2012]
Senegal (2010). Research information from infosysplus.org: Organisations and projects in Senegal. [Accessed 13 July 2012]
Eyhorn, F, S.G. Ratter & M. Ramakrishnan (2005) Organic Cotton Crop Guide; a Manual for Practitioners in the Tropics. Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FIBL), Frick, Switzerland, ISBN 3-906081-67-2.
FiBL, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Switzerland (2005). Organic Cotton Crop Guide. Authors: Frank Eyhorn (FiBL), Saro G. Ratter (BioSim), Mahesh Ramakrishnan (ICCOA). [Accessed 19 March 2012]