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Organic cotton in sub-Saharan Africa 

Certified organic production of cotton is a recent activity in sub-Saharan Africa, starting in the mid-1990s in Uganda and Tanzania, and followed by countries in West and Southern Africa. Peter Ton describes recent developments and elaborates on the outcomes of the African organic cotton research carried out by PAN UK and African partners.

Field agents with farmer, near Kandi, Northern Benin, September 2002. Photo: Simon Ferrigno

Motivated by the heavy use of pesticides in cotton production, Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) has supported and promoted the production and trade of organic cotton and eco-textiles since the early-1990s. The focus has been on sub-Saharan Africa. Cotton insecticides account for approximately 25% of all insecticides used world-wide. Organic cotton production and trade is promoted by PAN UK as an alternative to conventional cotton production1.
    In 2001, PAN UK carried out research, in collaboration with its African partners, on the role of alternative organic cotton production systems especially as they affect poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The project was commissioned by the European Union, with additional funds from the JJ Charitable Trust (UK) and comprised three separate studies: the African organic cotton research2, an international organic cotton market survey3, and a study on the implications of GM cotton for smallholder farmers4
    The African organic cotton research examined how the current organic cotton projects in sub-Saharan Africa are faring with a view to scaling-up production and trade in the future. Country reports were prepared by local and external consultants for projects in Benin5, Senegal6, Tanzania7, Uganda8 and Zimbabwe9. The country reports focused on the current state of the organic cotton projects, and on the local, regional and national contexts in which they operate. 
    This article elaborates on the outcomes of the African organic cotton research and argues that the organic production of cotton is beneficial to smallholders in Africa as a new, safe and sound way of growing cotton. It contributes to poverty alleviation, and should be promoted and extended for that reason.
    Local production contexts are diverse. The impacts and implications of organic cotton growing in sub-Saharan Africa should be assessed at different levels – local, regional and national. Diversity amongst farmers in terms of access to resources (human, financial, natural) should be acknowledged: the organic solution to cotton-related problems does not serve all farmers equally, but it does serve the more vulnerable groups including the poor, women and the indebted. 

Production levels
Certified organic cotton production is a recent activity in sub-Saharan Africa, and thus far has been largely experimental. It is almost entirely grown in rain-fed areas. Production began in Tanzania and Uganda in the 1994/95 season. Senegal and Zimbabwe followed the next season, and Benin one year later. In 2001, over 20,000 farmers and their families were involved producing 8,000 tonnes of seed cotton on some 12,000 hectares of land (see Table 1). Most producers (88%) were in Uganda.

Table 1. Certified organic cotton production in sub-Saharan Africa (2000/01)10
Parameter  Benin  Senegal 1  Senegal 2  Tanzania  Uganda 1  Uganda 2  Zimbabwe  Total
    (Koussanar)  (Velingara)    (Lango)  (Ochero)    
Number of producers  283  322  1,420  450  12,017  5,921  47  20,460
Number of villages  22  n/a  n/a  266  88  n/a
Area (ha)  168  53  1,065  1,676  7,859  1,121  18  11,960
Total seed cotton (tonnes)  72  18  479  610  6,120  673  7,978
Seed cotton yield (kg/ha)  431  345  450  364  779  600  355  667
Ginning (% fibre)  41.6  42.9  45.5  32.5  34.0  34.0  38.0  36.2
Fibre production (tonnes)  30  218  187  263  24  714
% of fibre production  31  26  37  100

Perception and reality
Organic cotton production is generally promoted as a method of production that helps to reduce environmental destruction. The focus in marketing the ‘organic cotton story’ is on the environmental impacts of pesticide use, on water use efficiency, on soil fertility management and the like.
    Yet, for small-scale farmers in Africa the importance of organic cotton growing lies in the benefits it brings to their livelihoods, to their health and to their socio-economic situation. Organic cotton production focuses on the use of locally available inputs, for which input credit loans are not needed, and which do not compromise the health of farmers, their families or their livestock (see Boxes 2 and 3). 
    Certified organic cotton may easily be produced where no disruptive chemical inputs were previously used in cotton growing. In fact, this is true of most of the certified organic cotton produced and traded in sub-Saharan Africa. Production contexts in Northern Uganda and Western Tanzania are such that the process of conversion to organic is fairly simple: organic cotton production is not about changing production practices, but rather about organising smallholders for certification in order to access higher priced export markets.

Box 2. Cotton insecticides in sub-Saharan Africa
Insecticides in use in conventional cotton production in sub-Saharan Africa include a wide range of extremely toxic active ingredients (see Table 2). Half of these ingredients are not approved, or have been banned, in several Northern countries. 
    Except for triazophos (WHO Class Ib – highly hazardous), all other active ingredients in use in cotton production in the five countries’ studied are classified for acute toxicity by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as Class II, or ‘moderately’ hazardous. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recommends that WHO Class Ia and Ib pesticides should not be used in developing countries, and if possible Class II pesticides should also be avoided11.
    Chlorpyrifos, dimethoate and triazophos belong to the organophosphate group (OPs). OPs are the most widely used insecticides in the world. They are also among the most acutely toxic of all pesticides to humans, vertebrate animals and insect pests. OPs are hazardous to both professionals and amateurs. They are regularly detected in food items such as fruits and vegetables12
    Carbaryl, cypermethrin and dimethoate are suspected of causing cancer in humans. Except for carbosulfan, profenofos and triazophos, all active ingredients listed in Table 2 are suspected endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors affect parts of the body’s hormone systems and can lead to an increase in birth defects, sexual abnormalities and reproductive failure13
Table 2. Characteristics of the main active ingredients in use in conventional cotton production in sub-Saharan Africa (2000/01)14.

Active ingredient

Group

WHO 
Class

Possibly
carcinogenic

Endocrine
disruptor

Betacyfluthrine

synthetic pyrethroid

II

-

3

Carbaryl

carbamate

II

3

3

Carbosulfan

carbamate

II

?

-

Chlorpyrifos

organophosphate

II

-

3

Cyfluthrin

synthetic pyrethroid

II

-

3

Cypermethrin

synthetic pyrethroid

II

3

3

Deltamethrin

synthetic pyrethroid

II

?

3

Dimethoate

organophosphate

II

3

3

Endosulfan

organochlorine

II

-

3

Fenvalerate

synthetic pyrethroid

II

?

3

Lambdacyhalothrin

synthetic pyrethroid

II

-

3

Profenofos

organophosphate

II

-

-

Triazophos

organophosphate

Ib

-

-

New developments
The experimental nature of organic cotton growing in sub-Saharan Africa shows in recent developments in the different countries. Tanzanian production increased more than 50% to some 300 tonnes of fibre20, making it the leading country in African organic cotton fibre trade today. The expansion follows investments in extension and training by project owner Remei, a Swiss yarn trader.
    Organic cotton production in Uganda remained quite stable, despite growing competition from cottons from other origins. The Lango project (Uganda 1) diversified into organic sesame production and trade. Currently it is also developing local processing of organic cotton fibre into ready-made garments. The other project (Uganda 2) has decided for now to focus on organic food production (sesame, chilli pepper), after mixed initial organic cotton trading experiences in 2000/01.
    The projects in Benin (Benin 1 and 2) merged in 2002. Production has more than doubled since 2001. Today, 700-800 farmers are involved in organic cotton in Benin, producing close to 200 tonnes of seed cotton, or 80 tonnes of certified-organic cotton fibre.
    The project in South-Eastern Senegal (Senegal 2), however, had to close following conflicts with the Senegalese cotton marketing board Sodefitex. In 2000/01, the project was responsible for one-third of trade in African organic cotton fibre.
    The Zimbabwe project was also discontinued following the withdrawal of buyer Cargill, and additional internal management problems. 
A widely publicised, new organic cotton project started in Mali in 2001. By late-2003 the first few tonnes of ‘in-conversion’ organic cotton fibre were brought to the Swiss market as pyjamas by the supermarket chain Migros. Processing took place in India. The project currently has about 170 producers. Certified organic cotton fibre from Mali will become available next year.

Box 3. Endosulfan poisoning in Benin 
The pesticides used in conventional cotton production are highly toxic, and dangerous to humans, livestock and the environment in general. Food contamination in Benin is associated with cotton production due to the misuse of pesticides and the recycling of pesticide containers. 
    People in Benin were shocked when, in 1999/00, approximately 70 people died following the ingestion of the cotton insecticide endosulfan15,16,17. Poisonings and deaths have continued since then18. Farmer knowledge about pesticides and pesticide use is poor: cotton pesticides are often used for the conservation of food stocks, in horticulture and in fishing.
    Cotton research should take these farming realities into account when recommending synthetic cotton insecticides like endosulfan, which were voluntarily withdrawn in the early 1980s – precisely because of their high risk to humans and the environment.
    Endosulfan is banned, not approved, or voluntarily withdrawn in a number of countries. NGOs worldwide have repeatedly called for a global ban on the production and use of endosulfan19.

Scaling-up production
Organic cotton production in Africa is about bringing improvements in livelihoods through poverty alleviation. In economic terms premium prices can translate into additional farm income, (as in Uganda and in Tanzania). It is also about poverty alleviation in terms of health and socio-economic changes, where organic cotton production replaces relatively high synthetic input cotton production. For these reasons, organic cotton should be promoted in sub-Saharan Africa whilst acknowledging the different farming realities.
    Scaling-up organic cotton production in East Africa (Uganda, Tanzania) is actually about market development. It is about the creation of new consumer markets for certified organic cotton fibre and eco-textiles. Commercial and non-commercial efforts could work together to overcome the critical thresholds that so far block large-scale consumer demand for organic cotton and eco-textiles, i.e. the availability of affordable organic cotton products (fibre, yarns, fabrics, end-products) to textile and clothing processors and end-consumers alike. Governments could support that process by shopping sustainably themselves, by lowering value-added tax (VAT) on organic products, by providing beneficial credit loan schemes, and by encouraging their textile industries and trade into more sustainable practices.
    Scaling-up organic cotton production in West and Southern Africa (Benin, Mali, Senegal, Zimbabwe), in contrast, is about changing cotton production practices. It is about rural change. It is about improving the quality of life in poverty-stricken rural areas, in terms of health and environment. Organic cotton production provides free environmental goods and services to all inhabitants of the growing areas and contributes to poverty alleviation in particular for those suffering most: lower income groups, women, and the indebted. These groups need access to growing practices which fit their realities and needs which are low-cost and which rely upon locally available resources (human, financial, natural). Changing production systems is a lengthy process: it requires commitment from producers, supporting structures and donors. 
    Scaling-up organic cotton production is likely to be based on the expansion of existing projects. It would mean that the number of entire villages growing cotton organically increases from tens to hundreds. New projects in and outside the research countries are needed to increase the impact of organic cotton production experiences on the conventional cotton sectors in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Conclusions
Organic cotton production could contribute substantially to the alleviation of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. It should be promoted with this objective, while acknowledging the diversity of farming realities that exist in different parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Organic cotton production should be developed as a viable alternative to conventional in as wide a variety of countries and production contexts as possible. 
    Scaling-up of organic cotton production in sub-Saharan Africa is needed for technical, environmental, organisational, research and marketing reasons. Technically, organic fertilisation and crop protection will be most effective in zones where no conventional cotton production takes place, as ecological imbalances will be reduced. The positive impact of organic production methods on the health of humans, livestock and the environment will also be more profound and measurable in exclusive and continuous organic cotton production areas.
    On an organisational level, larger projects are needed to reduce the overhead costs per kilogram of production (training and extension, certification, transport, trade). Projects of a larger size may attract more funds for research, and would look for partners among conventional cotton structures like cotton coordinating bodies, producer organisations, research institutes and governments. This will also facilitate the diffusion of relevant organic cotton production experiences.
    Finally, scale is needed in order to produce quantities that are adequate for trade. The international market for organic cotton and eco-textiles is oriented towards hundreds of tonnes of cotton fibre rather than the tens of tonnes, which are produced in some of the smaller projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Organic cotton production needs to expand in order to become a viable and convincing alternative to conventional cotton production in sub-Saharan Africa.

References
1. For detailed information on organic cotton production and marketing, see: Myers D & Stolton S (eds), Organic cotton: From field to final product, IT Publications, UK, 1999.
2. Ton P, Organic cotton production in sub-Saharan Africa: the need for scaling-up, PAN UK, London, August 2002.
3. Ton P, The international market for organic cotton and eco-textiles, PAN UK, London, August 2002.
4. Mayer S, Genetically modified cotton: implications for small-scale farmers. PAN UK, London, August 2002.
5. OBEPAB, Le coton au Bénin: rapport de consultation sur le coton conventionnel et le coton biologique au Bénin, PAN UK, London, August 2002.
6. PAN-Africa, Lutte contre les ravageurs, sécurité alimentaire et coton biologique au Sénégal, PAN UK, London, August 2002.
7. Ratter SG, The cotton sector in Tanzania: an evaluation of conventional and organic production, PAN UK, London, August 2002.
8. Tulip A and Ton P, Organic cotton study, Uganda case study, PAN UK, London, August 2002.
9. Wilson J, Country report on the organic cotton project in Zimbabwe within the context of the whole cotton industry, PAN UK, London, September 2002.
10. Ton P, Op. cit. 2.
11. The List of Lists. Briefing paper No. 3, PAN UK, London, November 2001.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Guide to active ingredient hazards, PAN UK, London, 2001.
15. Ton P, Tovignan S and Vodouhê SD, Endosulfan deaths and poisonings in Benin, Pesticides News 47: 12-14, March 2000.
16. Agri-Culture, Intoxication pour mauvaise manipulation des produits phytopharmaceutiques, Agri-Culture, 8:18, 1999.
17. Agri-Culture, 9:11, Agri-Culture, Cotonou, Benin, 1999.
18. Tovignan S, Vodouhê SD and Dinham B, Cotton pesticides cause more deaths in Benin, Pesticides News 52:12-14, June 2001.
19. End of the road for endosulfan. A call for action against a dangerous pesticide, Environmental Justice Foundation, London, 2002.
20. www.remei.ch/

Peter Ton works as an independent consultant on cotton production in Africa, and on the international market for organic cotton and eco-textiles, Tel./Fax: +31 20 668 1032, peterton@xs4all.nl

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 62, December 2003, pages 4-6]


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