Wear Organic is a project from Pesticide Action Network UK aiming to reduce the problems from pesticides used in cotton, particularly by promoting organic and fair alternatives

It Starts With a story


Not so long ago, in a village in Benin, West Africa a farmer named Issaka came home after a long day working in his cotton fields.   He had been spraying his cotton that day with the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan, and when he got home he put his pesticide-soaked overalls on the roof of his home, out of the reach of his children.  However, that night it rained hard and, as access to clean water is sometimes a challenge in the region, Issaka and his family for years had been in the habit of collecting rainwater run-off in buckets around the building. Early the next the morning, his four children – aged between six and eight – drank from the buckets when they got up early to play, as they usually did. They quickly began to feel ill and were rushed to the local health centre.  Horrifically by the next day, all four of his children were dead.

This is a tragic and extreme story and the chemical in question, endosulfan, has since thankfully been banned in Benin (thanks in part to work of PAN-UK), but it is still commonly used in other countries regularly, especially Ethiopia. Cotton production has historically been – and continues to be – plagued by over-reliance on hazardous pesticides. Thousands of cotton farmers and their families suffer from pesticide poisoning every year and many commit suicide as a result of debt related at least in part to high chemical costs.

PAN UK was an early pioneer of organic cotton and over the past two decades has trained and supported thousands of African farmers in organic techniques in order to enable them to move away from a reliance on dangerous and toxic chemicals.  This has predominantly been in the form of active field projects directly supporting farmers in Benin and Ethiopia, but PAN-UK also works throughout the region providing access to non-chemical alternatives and advice on managing pesticide risks. 

The basics of the problem

PAN UK’s cotton programme began in West Africa. Where the nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali rely heavily on cotton as an employer and export revenue source (In Benin, for example, cotton makes up 80% of its export income). Most of the cotton grown in these countries is produced by smallholder farmers and their families, each working a few acres.

However, cotton is a difficult crop to grow: yields can be decimated by severe weather (both droughts and flooding) and it is particularly vulnerable to pest attacks. Globally, cotton covers just 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but uses 6% of the world’s pesticides, more than any other single major crop. These often combine to create disastrous economic, health and environmental consequences for the smallholder cotton growers of West Africa.

·       Cotton farming is of marginal profitability. Many farmers earn less than a dollar a day from their crops. They receive little support or training and yields are low.

·       Smallholder cotton farmers spend up to 60% of their annual income on pesticides. Farmers must buy agrochemical inputs on credit at the start of the season and often yields at the end of the season are too meager to pay off these costs – just one bad harvest can tip a farmer into debt.

·       Farmer suicide is a major problem amongst cotton growers and, all too often, farmers end up killing themselves by drinking the very pesticides that pushed them into debt in the first place.

·       Pesticides are a major global killer (some estimates suggest they cause almost as many deaths worldwide as road accidents). Nearly 1,000 people die every day from acute pesticide poisoning and many more suffer from chronic ill health like cancers and leukemia, neurological diseases and reproductive problems including infertility, miscarriage and birth defects.

·       As well as the personal tragedies that these illnesses represent, pesticides are a huge drain on African economies and health services – the UN estimates that the health costs of pesticides across sub-Saharan Africa amount to an enormous US$4.4 billion a year which is about equal to the total international aid assistance given to the region for health. Meanwhile, a 2013 UNEP report concluded that the chronic loss of productivity caused by pesticide use diminishes Mali’s annual agricultural GDP per habitant by 50%. 


There is a solution

Organic cotton is a viable solution to these problems. Yields may be slightly lower than conventional cotton, but, with appropriate support and training, the gap in yields between organic and conventional can be reduced. For example, farmers in Benin that have received support from PAN have achieved yields in excess of 950kg/ha (compared to 1100kg/ha for conventional growers). But, this is the important part, the reduction in input costs meant that these farmers made roughly twice as much income from their cotton crops as their conventional neighbors without endangering their own health or that of their families.

PAN UK has worked in W. Africa for more than 15 years directly supporting thousands of farmers to grow organic cotton. We work with local groups – like OBEPAB in Benin, ENDA in Senegal and PAN Mali – to provide funding, technical support and training. We have two active organic cotton projects at the moment – supporting almost 2,000 farmers in Benin and 2,000 in Ethiopia.

Our cotton projects are among the most successful in Africa.  Our project in Benin came top in an independent review of cotton support programmes across Africa by the German aid agency GIZ. Our farmers achieved the highest gross margins of all their projects and the project achieved particularly high scores for resilience and poverty reduction.  Why are our cotton projects so successful?  They all include the following five elements.

·       Direct training and support to farmers: we provide extension services to farmers teaching them how to grow healthy crops, and training them in non-chemical pest control, including ecology and entomology to recognize and manage pests. According to Simon Ferrigno, a specialist consultant on Sustainable & Organic Farm Systems, OBEPAB has the ‘best extension and farmer support services in Africa.’

·       Establishing and supporting village co-operatives: we provide training and advice to help villages establish co-operatives. These give communities a structure through which they can effectively articulate their needs to local government and share learning and negotiate better deals with suppliers and traders.

·       Providing alternative pest control techniques: we also conduct research into innovative pest control technologies that boost cotton yields and reduce reliance on pesticides. For example, we have developed a harmless spray (made from fermented local food ingredients) that farmers can make themselves, which attracts beneficial insects into cotton fields to control pests. This spray, combined with our farmer-training programme, has helped farmers to control pesticides, yet maintain yields comparable to their conventional neighbors. Not only has this reduced their exposure to pesticides, but also it has also improved the profitability of their cotton.

·       Helping women and girls: a key feature of our projects is that they target support at women and girls.  At 40%, our projects in Benin have one of the highest ratios of women farmers in Africa (and much higher than the 20% average in other organic cotton projects). But our support does not just extend to cotton growing.  We also focus on crops that are important to women and their financial independence like Shea and other ground provisions.  A big part of this support is to provide labour-saving infrastructure for activities traditionally conducted by women (eg water collection, Shea butter processing). This frees up women’s time to engage in other productive activities (or in the case of younger girls, to attend school). We also support micro-industries like weaving to enable women to earn their own incomes, giving them freedom over economic choices for themselves and their children.

Helping food security and reducing risk – Our organic cotton farmers typically grow more than 20 other food and cash crops as part of their organic system. This means that they are not entirely reliant on cotton to feed their families. This strategy is less risky than monocrop cotton production as it spreads the risk among different crops, with greater or lesser resilience to different problems. Further, as they can be harvested throughout the year this brings a more even distribution of income to the household.

still a long way to go

Development requires long-term support and should be built around training and capacity building.  Africa is littered with broken machinery that has not been maintained properly, and empty schools and health centres without the staff or medicines needed to run them. Infrastructure (equipment and machinery) is crucial, but it is also important to train farmers in how to use and maintain it, and to establish the social infrastructure (e.g. community groups) that will keep them going when the donors have moved on. PAN UK has a 15+ year relationship with our partners in the region and over this time, we have seen them take more and more responsibility and become more autonomous.  In the long-term, we hope they won’t need our help, but we will be there for as long as they need us.

The main areas we are focussing on currently are:

·       Accesses to markets – farmers are in a weak bargaining position and often have to go through intermediaries to sell their cotton. This means they do not get the best prices and rarely get the security of multi-year contracts. Only a fraction of the organic cotton grown in W. Africa is sold at an organic premium.  One of the biggest things that would help cotton farmers would be a long-term commitment to buy their cotton at an organic premium (typically 20%).  This needs to come from local and global business and industry and in Benin at least, this has been achieved.

·       Financial support for farmer training – our current project in W. Africa supports nearly 4,000 farmers.  Additional support would allow us to dramatically scale up this training and reach more farmers directly.  It cots about £5 a month to train a farmer but the training teaches skills that last for years and are assimilated into the wider community.

·       Financial support for infrastructure in addition to training, farmers need machinery and equipment to help them produce cotton more efficiently and add value to other crops.  In particular the women in [insert village/region name] would really benefit from a Shea nut processor, which would decrease their daily work considerably. 


For more information about the work PAN-UK are doing on organic cotton check out the rest of our cotton pages and for the hard science, facts and research please browse our library of publications.


What can you do to help?  Donate to PAN-UK to help us continue the work.

Wear, Buy, Demand and Talk about organic cotton!

sorry. Thanks, but this is a charity site and upgrading from 1.5 is not going to be straightforward when they have no web dev budget, have a heart!