Cotton is a cash crop, but buy organic and help farmers escape poverty

| 7th December 2010
What's the most sustainable fabric?
Buying organic cotton doesn't mean you are depriving a farmer in the developing world of food crops, says Eliza Anyangwe of Pesticide Action Network. Rather, it's one action every ethical consumer should take

Deciding to factor in the social and environmental costs of your consumption is like opening Pandora's box or venturing into Room 101: no one is quite sure what they'll find there but it almost certainly won’t be pleasant.

For the ethical consumer, food choices alone are a quagmire of considerations. First, produce has to be deemed good for you and of good value, then the following questions need to be answered: what is its carbon footprint? Is it seasonal? Is it organic or grown or reared as sustainably as possible? Can the dots be connected back from the store shelf to the producer?

Buying clothes is an even more complex process, as the garment supply chain is probably the most convoluted of all. It is difficult enough tracing a cotton t-shirt back to the factory where it was sewn, let alone trying to pinpoint where the cotton in the t-shirt came from. This distance from field to final product means that of all commodities, the cotton t-shirt is the least associated with the soil. It is easy to forget that, like green beans or roses, cotton is a crop, grown across the world and mostly by farmers who are vulnerable to changing climates, trade restrictions and environmental degradation from the use of chemical pesticides.

Cash crop

Cotton is one of the most popular cash crops grown in the developing world, and the cotton industry employs more than a million people. In Benin, for example, where Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) works, it accounts for a significant proportion of agricultural production and of the country's GDP.

But cotton is just that – a cash crop. The conventional farmer (often a man, as the health risks for women are too great for communities to take) cannot eat it and so has to sell it at a profit if it is to be sustainable, environmentally and economically. But the problem with conventional cotton is that it is often not sustainable.

Cotton is one of the most pest-prone crops grown, and in parts of the world like West Africa, where the cotton is rain-fed (not irrigated), chemical pesticides and insecticides account for much as 60 per cent of the farmer's costs. But the loss in fertility of his intensively farmed soil, the subsidies paid in other countries that price him out of the market and the high risk of pesticide poisoning, mean that even if the farmer can sell his cotton he is unlikely to make a profit. He then ends up spiralling into debt as money is borrowed at usury rates to start the process all over again in the next growing season.

None of that information is new. Ethical consumers have for some time now been aware of the environmental and social costs of cotton production, and increasingly recognise that organic cotton is a sustainable alternative.

Organic cotton eliminates the need for expensive agrochemical inputs, which immediately cuts costs and demands a higher market price, meaning the farmer stands a better chance of working his way out of poverty. It is this knowledge that has driven the demand for organic cotton, now available in some product lines on most of the high street.

But questions remain for the ethical consumer who is still trying to work out the combined impact of her choices.

Fibre and food

Add the 'cash crop' nature of cotton to increasing reports of food insecurity in the developing world and it is difficult for ethical consumers not to decide that there is something selfish about driving the supply of cotton through their demand for it.

It seems a fair assessment, except that one of the central principles of organic cotton farming is that cotton is grown in rotation with food crops. Various food crops, such as groundnuts, are also grown alongside the cotton in a technique known as 'inter-cropping'. Research by Organic Exchange showed that in Tanzania farmers grew a combination of six food crops alongside their cotton, and consumed between 30 and 80 per cent of those crops.

Crop rotation and inter-cropping not only improves food security in farm families, but also increases the fertility of the soil, improving subsequent crop yields; reduces risk of total income loss if a particular crop performs poorly, and diversifies the farmer's income, as any surplus food can be sold on the local market. Invest a little bit in the farms and their produce and that surplus crop could be destined for export markets, certified organic, further raising the farmer out of poverty through the higher market price organic commands.

The assumption often incorrectly made is that, unlike us – by virtue of the fact that they live off the land – farmers in developing countries should be able to produce everything they need to sustain their families. But consuming what you produce will only keep you alive. A 2002 report by Oxfam indicated that in West Africa, 'cotton is a vital cash crop... it provides income for spending on everything from health and education to the purchase of tools and building equipment.' Farming has to be a viable business if it is to improve livelihoods and reduce dependence and poverty.

The sheanut is a good example: the tree grows around the cotton field, its fruit is eaten by the community, providing essential fats, and its nut pressed for oil, which is exported and used in the cosmetic industry to produce body butters, among other things. Sheanut has not only provided nourishment; the trees have supported the farming ecosystem, and with very little extra work the farmer has increased his income.

There are still many issues the ethical consumer has to grapple with: which textile is best for people and planet? How much of the final price for any commodity goes to those most in need of it? How much can we trust the big brands to do the right thing – and indeed, who enforces voluntary ethical standards? At least to the question 'does my demand for organic cotton mean a farmer somewhere in the world will go hungry?' – save for unforeseen events – one can confidently answer  'no'.

To find out more, visit PAN UK's Fibre, Food and Beauty project

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