Organic Cotton Fields

When viewed from above, you can clearly see the difference between an organic cotton field and a conventional field. Where a conventional field has only cotton growing and nothing else in between, an organic field is full of life and greenery between the rows of white cotton.

Pesticides

But how does an organic cotton field stay pest free without the use of synthetic pesticides? Whereas in conventional farming the approach is to kill pests, organic farming adopts a completely different approach. The aim is first and foremost to prevent pests from becoming a problem. This aim is achieved by employing a variety of measures, including:

  • Crop rotation: Growing only one crop repeatedly in a field provides potential pests with abundant food sources, causing their populations to increase rapidly. Crop rotation, the practice of growing a variety of crops in one location on rotation, helps to keep pests at a low level by establishing a natural balance.
  • Promotion of natural predators such as birds, ladybirds, spiders, beetles and ants: Not using pesticides and growing a rotation of different crops in one location benefits natural predators of cotton pests.
  • Trap crops: By growing crops that many cotton pests prefer, such as maize or sunflower, alongside the cotton, pests will be diverted away and will naturally spare the cotton.
  • Natural pesticides: If preventive measures prove insufficient, a number of natural pesticides can be used to help to keep pests away. These include chilli, neem, garlic or mixtures of extract from different plants. It is important to note that some natural pesticides are in fact more toxic and damaging to the environment and people than synthetic pesticides as they have not been engineered to degrade quickly or attack only specific bugs. For this reason, the main objective with organic farming is to avoid the use of pesticides entirely, and proper education of farmers is absolutely key.

Water

Like sugar and rice, cotton is a very thirsty crop. Conventional cotton farming involves using irrigation systems to keep the plants watered. These irrigation systems vary dramatically in their effectiveness and effect on the environment; in some cases 60% of the water used never reaches its intended plant, whereas some irrigation systems in the western world have a 95% hit rate. The origin of the water used in also relevant, with some being transported out of other ecosystems and thereby having huge negative impacts on these and on local communities. Another common problem arising as a result of improper use of irrigation systems, is the salinisation of the soil (increasing the salt content) which renders it completely unusable, and the pollution and contamination of local and regional water supplies. While there are positive reasons for using irrigation systems, such as the ability to control water requirements and resilience against drought, they can be disastrous for the environment when a holistic and irresponsible approach is not adopted. Organic cotton farming in the undeveloped world is largely rain-fed, while an educated and responsible approach is encouraged throughout the world.

OAR and GOTS-certified cotton

At OAR we use only GOTS-certified cotton. GOTS is the most thorough and strict organic standard that exists, and involves all materials, processes and practices adhering to the strictest organic standards, throughout the whole supply chain. Despite this, we acknowledge that organic certification is far from perfect. This is largely owing to the fact that the organic certification system is relatively young and requires ongoing research and development. It is also important that farmers receive adequate information and training, as the improper use of organic fertilisers and organic pesticides, or the improper use and handling of water can have damaging effects on the environment. However, organic practices are constantly being developed and improved by certified, independent parties, and we believe that following these holistic, transparent practises is healthy and makes sense for the environment and for people. We hope that in the future organic certification will also include water footprint, irrigation practises and origin of agricultural land.

Harvest

Out in the fields of North-West India, we had a chance to meet some of the farmers supplying our cotton and some of the pickers picking our cotton. Most farms in the region are smallholdings, comprising just a few fields, some modest buildings, and possibly a cow or two. Farmers join together in cooperatives, allowing them to pool their resources to buy seeds, and to get better negotiating power with the cotton traders that buy their produce.

Picking

Typically the farmer will pay local workers to come in at harvest time, and they pick the cotton by hand. Whereas conventional cotton has been engineered or sprayed with defoliants to ensure all crops ripen at the same time, organic cotton ripens naturally, at varying times throughout the harvest. This makes picking the cotton more labour intensive and means it requires greater skill. A typical organic cotton field has to be harvested four times, and it requires experience and skill to know which boll to pick and which to leave. Pick the cotton too early and it will be weak; pick it too late and it will be woody and unusable. This makes it very hard to use machinery and child labour for picking.

Wage

All of our cotton is GOTS-certified which, besides ensuring a strict organic standard, also ensures strict socially responsible standards. This includes the requirement that all people involved in the farming process, from farmers to pickers, must receive a fair wage, and that no child labour is permitted at any stage in the supply chain. These standards are enforced and upheld by regular, unannounced audits and checks.