What’s organic cotton got to do with feeding the world?

Probably more than you thought! Arguably, more than genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). And probably a more constructive conversation than dwelling on the misguided belief that we need to produce more food.

An elegantly written and easy to ‘digest’ (excuse the pun) report by the Soil Association was launched the other week at the Annual Soil Association Conference in London, UK. Not that you would be surprised to hear that the Soil Association (the UK campaigner for organic food and farming) is behind a report titled ‘How organic farming can help feed the world’. But, take a read; you will soon see the report is as much a basic blueprint for how we can all be more responsible towards food, as it is about a promotion of the organic sector.

Main points have been identified in the report and I’ve summarised them below.  These points are enormously important to comprehend if we want to move past the fear of ‘not having enough food to go round’, to looking at intelligent ways to resolving inefficiencies and inequalities in food production and distribution. Feeding the world is going to require better food ‘management’ than simply an expansion in food production.

·         Doubling the production of food will not solve the hunger problem. There is already enough food produced for all to eat well. Yet nearly 1 billion people are ‘hungry’ (i.e. not getting enough food).

·         While there are 1 billion people are in need of more food, the same numbers of people are overweight. Suffering, or potentially suffering from, obesity related ill-health, such as diet induced diabetes.

·         On top of a mis-match between food supply and food need we waste a third of all food produced. It doesn’t get to the right place in a timely fashion, there is inadequate storage, or it is wasted due to excess.

·         And finally, particularly in affluent societies, we are eating too much meat. Not only is meat production a less efficient way to produce the calories and protein we need, but our meat-heavy diets are in part responsible for the global food imbalance, diet related  ill-health, and greenhouse gas production.  

It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 9 billion people in the world. The Soil Association report asserts that advocators of the ‘we need to grow more food if we want to feed the world’ campaign are basing this belief on the current model of unbalanced food supply and distribution, inadequate storage facilities in the South, and an assumption that more developing countries will aspire to western meat-heavy diets. Plus, the belief that people in the developed world will not change their diets and reduce their meat intake.

The landmark IAASTD report ‘Agriculture at a crossroads’ published in 2009 with the input of 400 scientists and supported by 60 countries, recommends ‘agroecology’ to maintain and increase productivity of global agriculture, while addressing environmental issues. Agroecology, which includes organic agriculture, is the application of ecological principles to the production of food and fiber, and the management of agricultural ecosystems.

The report also recommended that community-based innovation and local knowledge combined with science-based approaches to be the best way to address the problems, needs and opportunities of the rural pool.

So, back to the point of what organic cotton has got to do with feeding the world... Well for one thing there are a lot of cotton farmers in the world. Rafiq Chaudhry, Head of the Technical Information Section at ICAC tells us... “There are approximately 100 million cotton farmers globally, almost 99 percent of whom farm in developing countries. Most cotton growers in developing countries are small resource-poor farmers growing two hectares or less of cotton.”

I don’t have the figures but it wouldn’t be surprising if a good number of these 100 million farmers and their families are among the world’s hungry... And one cannot eat cotton. Of course, cotton is a cash crop so the expectation is that farmers make enough money to purchase food. Having enough income to purchase food is indeed important for food security and food diversity, but what is even more important, particularly if you are a rural dweller (and may live a fair way from the nearest food market) is to live within a community of food growers; and preferably, as a farmer, to be able to grow food yourself... for your own needs.

Organic cotton farm systems depend upon a diversity of crops to maintain soil fertility and perform other functions on the farm. Most essentially, some of these crops can double up as food supply. Rotation crops, intercrops, and trap crops are often pulses, beans, nut oils, peanuts, wheat, and maize. While fruit and nut trees may serve as border crops. Textile Exchange research found that organic cotton farmers surveyed grew on average six crops in addition to their cotton. Furthermore, the health and safety risks and carbon load associated with agrichemicals are reduced, which in turn means the food grown on organic cotton farms is free of chemical residue and has a lower carbon footprint.

Building a culture of food production

Not only can organic cotton farm systems produce fiber for cash and food for consumption, but the ‘system’ encourages a ‘culture’ of food production. While, monocropping encourages and rewards maximising the production of one crop for market, organic farming encourages and rewards the production of a diverse range of crops: potentially improving food security through a cultural as well as a technological adaptation. Multiple income streams, and value-adding, are also possible due to the diversification of crops, and even acts as a kind of insurance; if catastrophe strikes there is less chance your entire range of crops will be wiped out. Thus, crop diversification may be a useful tool for adapting to climate change.

Of course, there is much more we need to do if we want to shift from a culture of ‘resource intensive’ agriculture where farmers are dependent on industrial inputs and high-tech fixes to ‘knowledge intensive’ farming which relies on a farmers understanding of ecology and knowing how to make use of local inputs. For this transformation to be viable we need much more knowledge exchange between the field and the laboratory; demonstration and leadership in the field, especially when it comes to maximising profit, working out what kind of crop diversity works best, and improving agro-ecological practices generally. But probably most urgent is the need for farmer associations, governments, NGOs, and corporates to put as much investment and faith into agroecology as they are putting into genetic engineering.

For me the huge opportunity that lies within organic cotton production is its people-centric approach to getting a ‘commodity’ i.e. cotton to market whilst still investing in local food security. One is not sacrificed for the other. This is key to feeding the world.

Photo: Organic colored cotton farmers in the Peruvian rainforest. These farmers grow all sorts of crops together with cotton (bananas, cocoa, sacha inchi, etc). In this picture is Orlando Rivera, with a Control Union inspector, and three farmers. Photo courtesy of Orlando Bergman, Bergman Rivera.

By Liesl Truscott
Director Farm Engagement



Organic cotton is generally

Organic cotton is generally understood as cotton and is grown in subtropical countries such as the United States of America and India, from non genetically modified plants, that is to be grown without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides. Thanks.

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Secondary care is the health

Secondary care is the health care services provided by medical specialists and other health professionals who generally do not have first contact with patients, for example, cardiologists, urologists and dermatologists. Thanks.
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Organic cotton: food security and safety

Thanks for writing this piece Liesl - although cotton is primarily grown as a cash crop, its connection with food security and safety is highly significant.