Organic cotton is an elegantly simple yet doggedly complex concept. It can be thought of as a product, an agricultural practice, a movement, or even a philosophy. And holistically it is all four! The best organic cotton ‘programs’ are certainly a combination of all four elements, resulting in a tool or formula for delivering benefits to farmers (especially small scale ones), the long-term health of the environment, and ultimately society at large.
Above: Organic cotton flower, Peru. Photo A. Lizarraga, Textile Exchange
Organic cotton programs are also set up to deliver a market driven solution for ecologically and socio-economically sustainable development. However, the economic benefits of organic cotton, once quite tangible due to the relatively substantial ‘price premiums’ in the marketplace, are less clear these days. Many advocates of organic programs lament the inability of ‘the market’ to take over, and donor funding and NGO assistance should gracefully phase out. And for 'just' or responsible trade to deliver the economic benefits necessary for genuine ‘pro-poor’, ‘pro-farmer’ economic development. Too much still depends on NGOs and civil society paying for the ‘value-addition’ of organic on the ground. We know that well founded organic cotton programs are living testament to the opportunities and successes of organic cotton, but investment in and commitment to organic cotton production systems by essential actors in the value chain is still fragile or fragmented. Generally speaking.
There are undoubtedly other concerns equally alarming, such as the rapid spread of genetically modified (GMO) cotton in many organic cotton producing countries. As with healthy market access, access to healthy non-GMO seed supply is a multi-dimensional dilemma due to the range of challenges it presents.
Solutions – whether for trade or seed - need to go beyond discrete value chain actors working in isolation and move towards a more holistic and inter-relational space, potentially acknowledging a degree of co-dependency. Certification provides an element of third party assurance, quality control, and traceability; it can work as the glue that binds each link to each other. But we need to move beyond this too. It’s the human factor that matters most; the de-commoditisation of cotton, and a shift towards a more humane sharing of prosperity.
In this series of Q&A’s we look at the past, present, and future of organic cotton. We consider organic cotton in all it's four guises - as a product, a practice, a movement, and a philosophy. With this wide ranging scope in mind, and our Farm & Fiber report just around the corner, we thought it would be an ideal opportunity to start a discussion forum, and open up the discussion to you.
We also want to refresh your interest in the role of organic cotton as a market driven solution for improving livelihoods in rural communities and addressing ecological decline. Organic provides answers in terms of both farm innovation and a ‘low tech’ (low carbon, low-chemical, low water) method of production and it can also provide a blueprint for farmer-centric rural development and pro-poor trade which can have a lasting and profound impact in some of the world’s most impoverished regions.
For the next couple of weeks we will be asking (and answering) a number of popular questions about organic cotton and looking at some of the common concerns and myths. We also want to know – and hopefully answer – your biggest questions too. So send them in via the ‘comments’ box at the bottom of the page. We hope to hear from you soon!
Tomorrow: What does it mean to be ‘organic’?