A commitment by sports apparel retailers to use organic cotton for some of their products is leading to an increase in the number of farmers growing organic cotton (cotton grown without fertilizers and pesticides) in India, although the shift to this crop is risky, warns an expert. A tonne of organic cotton costs around Rs95, which is Rs20 more than a tonne of normal cotton. The price difference more than makes up for the extra cost of growing organic cotton; although organic cotton farmers save on fertilizers, they have to convert the soil (a process that requires removing residue of fertilizers and the like) before they can grow the crop.
Nike Inc. has announced that it will use organic cotton as the base for at least 5% of its apparel by 2010. Adidas, now owned by Reebok India Co. and Puma Sports India Pvt. Ltd have made a similar commitment, although neither has announced percentages and deadlines. Lobbying by environmental groups in the United States and Europe have influenced the companies and also created a class of customers willing to pay a premium for such goods, said Samir Boppai, a spokesperson for Nike India Ltd. An organic cotton shirt commands a premium of 25-40% over a normal cotton one.
Farmers run a huge risk by moving to organic cotton and A.T.P. Rajendran, a senior scientist at the Central Institute of Cotton Research at Nagpur describes their efforts as “brave and praiseworthy”. That’s because cotton is vulnerable to a wide variety of pests, which necessitates the intensive use of pesticides. And although India has the highest acreage of cotton under cultivation in the world, the net productivity of cotton in India is low because of inefficient sowing practices. “Even now cotton cultivated on 5% cultivable land uses 54% of the total fertilizers used in our agriculture,” said Rajendran.
High risks: Organic farming requires cotton to be grown without fertilizers and pesticides, making it vulnerable to pests and diseases
Cultivating organic cotton means having to do without fertilizers and pesticides but some farmers are going for it because of the higher returns. In some cases their entry is helped by organic cotton buyers such as Suminter India Organics Pvt. Ltd and Agrocel Industries Ltd.”
Over 80% of our market is exported to Europe and the US, there are not too many buyers in India, though,” said Hasmukh Patel, a farmer and a manager with Agrocel, one of the largest organic cotton suppliers in India.
Under such arrangements, companies promise to buy a fixed amount of the produce. This guaranteed return attracts more farmers to organic cotton farming.
India is the second largest producer of organic cotton in the world with a production of 10,365 tonnes a year (just behind Turkey’s production of 11,108 tonnes), but there’s scope for more growth. Sameer Mehta, the chief executive ofSuminter India said he is currently scouting for venture funding to expand his business. “Since 2002, we’ve seen the number of farmers who sell us organic cotton, grow by almost 40%,” he added.