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Can Organic and GM Cotton Find a Way to Coexist?

Cotton farmers seem to agree that it’s everyone’s right to grow cotton the way they wish, but those that have chosen to grow organic are looking for better ways to coexist with those that haven’t.

In a talk at Textile Exchange’s Organic Cotton Roundtable in Hamburg, Germany, last week, farmers, breeders and those in organizations representing farmers and breeders hashed out the challenges when it comes to organic cotton and GM (genetically modified cotton or conventional cotton) coexisting.

Michael Sligh, program director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), who has been farming organically on a large scale since the 1970s, said the current cotton environment isn’t one of coexistence.

“The organic cotton community is doing everything we know to do to protect ourselves from unwanted pesticides and GMO drift,” Sligh said. “Good fences make good neighbors. Your fences should be hog tight and bull strong and horse high.”

The trouble—right-size fences or not—is that a windy day could bring about bring about a loss of business for an organic farmer and it’s hard to incriminate any one farmer for the way the wind blows. In many cases on farms around the world, an organic cotton farmer and a conventional cotton farmer can be field neighbors. If a breeze sends GM cotton blowing into the organic cotton field, there’s a chance that cotton could be contaminated.

Organic cotton farmers do everything they can to avoid the scenario, but sometimes nature prevails and what would have been organic cotton, as it was farmed as such, has to get turned back over to the conventional market and not bring in a premium.

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“If there is not 50 meters distance between the farms [organic and conventional farms], despite all your efforts, if that contaminates, you’ll lose that product,” said Aly Kanoute, project manager for RECOLTE, an organic cotton project that supports 10,000 smallholder farmers—mostly women—in Burkina Faso. Smallholders farm pieces of land that are smaller than entire farms.

Last year, the organization lost 22 percent of its organic cotton product because of contamination. And while that translates to a hit on the bottom line when it comes to business, the industry must harder better to put a face to the small farmers, Kanoute said. That 22 percent loss directly affected at least one woman who relies on her half an acre of cotton farm for her livelihood.

“We are making her lose that money and she has an average of six kids and she has to use 60 percent of that revenue to send them to school,” Kanoute said.

For coexistence to work, it’s going to take a level playing field, Ashis Mondal, director of Indian NGO Action for Social Advancement (ASA), which works to help advance conditions for smallholders in the country.

“We are trying to solve these ‘level playing’ field issues by more of a volunteerism, but I think this issue needs to be sorted out by the regulatory mechanisms,” Mondal said. Conversations about GMO drift and breeding seeds work with local demands should be part of G20 meetings, heard among regulatory bodies. “It’s a much bigger agenda that we need to deal with.”

But according to Arun Ambatipudi, co-founder and executive director of India’s Chetna Organic, a collective of organic cotton farmers, a level playing field may not exist in a smallholder situation.

“How can there be a successful coexistence when I find that my cotton or my farmers’ cotton is not entering into the organic market because there has been a contamination and I am not at fault?” Ambatipudi asked. “There’s no level playing field. You can still have some fencing, but what about agent spraying?”

And what’s more, even if all efforts were taken to protect the farm from contamination on site, two brothers might be farming, one organic, one GMO, but then they go home and live in the same house.

“How do you fence that?” Ambatipudi posed.

It’s going to take more than volunteering to do the right thing and best efforts at best practices to avoid contamination.

“Efforts have to be made around breeding local varieties, and for that I think working with the governments and regulative bodies is important,” Ambatipudi said. “Coexisting in a smallholder scenario might be difficult.”