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Is Natural Colored Cotton an Option? Indian Scientists Say Yes

NEW DELHI—Naturally grown colored cotton has potential.

Besides a growing niche market in India, exports, particularly to Europe and Japan, are seen as an area for growth, particularly as the call for sustainable fibers that use avoid chemical dyes and processes has steadily grown louder.

Although colored cotton has a history of more than 5,000 years in India, Egypt and South America, the varieties that meet the demands of modern ginning and mills, with strength in fiber and yield, both troubling issues, have been the focus in recent years.

“The supply creates the demand, and vice versa. It is an opportunity for India, as well as for the global market,” said Dr. Keshav Kranti, who is head technical information section adviser for the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), in Washington, and formerly the director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur, India.

“The world tells you it is not possible, but as scientists it has been proven to work, and the rest is the process of creating a supply chain, the value chain, the sourcing,” he said.

India is already the world’s biggest cotton producer, yielding 6,069 metric tons in 2019-20, followed by China, at 5,800 metric tons, and the U.S. in third place, at 4,336 metric tons, according to the ICAC.

Of the many hues of colored cotton—mostly earthy shades of brown, gray and green—the easiest to replicate, and the one that shows the greatest promise, is dark brown.

Rajen R. Vyas, CEO of marketing at Rudra Enterprise, a Mumbai-based trader and exporter of cotton, has extensive experience with colored cotton, including exporting blue cotton from Kutch (Western India), and he only sees the demand rising. “Colored cotton seed is available, it’s not a complicated technology, but just needs proper attention. And organic is not cheap.”

Vyas contends that the logistics of this niche fiber demands more attention, which is borne out by scientists who have been working on colored cotton for years and believe the time is right for a higher level of investment in commercial production–both ecologically, and for the success of isolating stronger quality seeds and yields.

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One of the places where brown cotton has emerged is in Dharwad, in Karnataka in Southern India.

Dr. Rajesh Patil, principal scientist, genetics and plant breeding at the Advanced Center of Cotton Research at the University of Dharwad, told Sourcing Journal that innovation in this arena has reached a point of inflection.

“Twenty years back the colored cotton yield was good, there was resistance to natural diseases, but the trade-off was poor fiber properties. Modern spinning requires a certain amount of fiber strength, and our experiments have been able to achieve that, including practical application, working with a society that made handloom textiles, in Uppinabetageri village, with great success. With the improved new color-cotton varieties, the niche market can widen and can be better explored.”

Patil says the possibilities extend far beyond apparel, as research has shown that some varieties of colored cotton also have more absorbent qualities, and the textiles offer protection to the skin against harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Naturally-Colored Cotton From India Gains Traction
Handloom naturally colored cotton from India. Courtesy

Rajeev Baruah, an agro-ecological consultant with a special focus on cotton, noted that while colored cotton is important from an ecological perspective, the industry must consider the many weak links in terms of productivity. “Who is going to coordinate between spinners and ginners, and ginners and farmers? Who will ensure that the farmers have enough demand, and they get a better pricing for colored cotton?” These are practical points that need attention, he said.

Dr. Vinita Prashant Gotmare, a Nagpur-based principal scientist at CICR, has spent more than a decade developing the hybrid Vaidehi-95, which was registered in 2013 and addresses a fundamental problem that those creating colored cotton have encountered: fading in the sunlight.

“It is a long process,” she said. “We grew this genotype with a natural dark brown color in three different locations to be sure of its qualities and found that in fact it grew darker with exposure to sunlight and with washes.” That was a valuable finding, as the green cottons tend to lose their hue.

Years later, her excitement is still palpable, having taken the initiative beyond her basic mandate as a scientist, following it to the process of fiber and textiles, particularly jackets that didn’t need the finesse of very high staple cotton.

Dr. A.H Prakash, project coordinator at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research-All India Coordinated Research Project on Cotton (ICAR-AICRP) in Southern India, said, “Colored cotton is now available in five to seven shades, 24-28 mm fiber length, which is very good to spin, and the seeds can be reused unlike the genetically engineered hybrid cotton that is grown across most of India, for which seeds need to be bought each season. So the farmers actually save money.”

One major concern for the industry–and a term frequently used in the Covid-19 era–is that “colored cotton has to be grown in almost a ‘quarantine’ way, because otherwise there is a chance we might lose the white cotton because of contamination by cross pollination,” he said. “That makes it difficult for farmers.”

Dr. Keshav Kranti, who championed the colored cotton project closely during his long tenure as director of CICR, disagrees. “There is no question of the white cotton varieties or hybrids getting contaminated due to pollination in the current scenario. Today, more than 95 percent of Indian cotton seeds are produced by seed companies and the rest by public sector seed farms. These seeds are produced in seed plots which already maintain the recommended 50 meters isolation distance, among several other factors.”

Translating all of this into bigger, and more usable, realities only needs someone to connect the dots. Worldwide, perhaps. In the U.S, Sally Fox, a cotton breeder, has been working on it for years, and there are various versions of colored cotton from other parts of the world, including Africa and China.

“We need some hand-holding,” admitted Dr. Kranti. “Now ginning can be done with very small, specific machines, the seeds are available, the farmers are available, the fiber strength is good. It is waiting to happen.”