India’s cotton cultivation consumes too much, produces too little. That’s changing

The largely water intensive nature of the cotton crop, extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides and genetic modification has posed a significant environmental challenge as far as cotton cultivation is concerned.

ET Online
India is the largest producer of cotton in the world. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) pegs India’s cotton production at 29 million bales in the 2019-20 season as against 26 million bales the previous year. However, despite these impressive numbers, the productivity per hectare is starkly low.
When Ahmedabad-based textile major Arvind Ltd partnered with Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a global not-for-profit organisation in 2010-11, they knew that a shift in farmers' mindset would be anything but easy.

The traditional mindset of applying excess of fertilisers to get more crops and use of more pesticides to avoid pest attacks was rooted firmly in the farmer psyche. However, over the years, this practice had not been beneficial to them in any way. The largely water intensive nature of the cotton crop, extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides and genetic modification has posed a significant environmental challenge as far as cotton cultivation is concerned.
MSME
India is the largest producer of cotton in the world. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) pegs India’s cotton production at 29 million bales in the 2019-20 season as against 26 million bales the previous year. The latest figures mean that India is all set to surpass China, which has a projection of 27.75 million bales for the same season.



However, despite these impressive numbers, the productivity per hectare is starkly low. The Cotton Association of India (CAI) estimates that the per hectare productivity of cotton in India during 2018-19 stands at a mere 420.72 kgs, which is about 2.47 bales per hectare. This means higher land usage, but a lower income for farmers, in addition to practices not being conducive to increased yields. Industry experts are of the view that making farmers aware of healthier cotton practices and improved farming techniques can be the key in turning around the prevailing scenario.

The BCI concept, essentially, has been about growing cotton with controlled application of water and use of approved fertilisers and pesticides. In a bid to make the idea more appealing to farmers, the company came up with a plan - a deck containing videos, demos, case studies, presentations in local languages and reached out to them explaining the potential merits.

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Eventually, the persistence and consistency from Arvind worked its way through. The company, which had 10,000 acres of land under BCI cultivation engaging 4000 farmers expanded to 100,000 acres in FY 19 with 26,000 farmers under its ambit. The plan is to scale it up further to 150,000 acres for BCI by FY 20.

“The younger farmers were far more receptive to the change,” reveals Abhishek Bansal, Head of Sustainability at Arvind Ltd while explaining the practices at Raypar village, which is located at an approximate four and half hour drive from Ahmedabad. Spread over sprawling acres of lush green and home to several farmer families, this village is creating new ground for better and cleaner cotton cultivation.

Arvind’s journey
The company’s cotton journey started in 2007 when demand for textiles made with organic cotton came by, primarily from the European market. “This is when we decided to get into cotton cultivation ourselves and thereby help farmers grow cotton as per the global standards as well as fulfill our requirements of organic cotton,” adds Bansal.

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This continued for a few years before they embarked upon their first BCI project in India in 2011. Since then, the growth has been manifold in both organic and BCI initiatives with Arvind’s sustainable cotton operations now spread across four different states of India.

The company has been involved in various efforts that can help to augment farmers’ income by leaps and bounds. Ranjit, farmer and field facilitator at Raypar village, says that the primary focus has been the reduction of hazardous pesticides and coming up with ways to reduce spacing between plants.

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“If one does that, the number of plants in that field increase, which means yield goes up and income increases. So at the same cost, yield will go up,” he says while also explaining how he works more with younger generation farmers as they are more amenable to new age techniques.

Such practices have been helpful in retaining farmers. “It helps in reducing input cost and second, it increases income by increasing the amount of crops they grow. We track the balance sheet of each farmer and how much profit they make and over the years, we have seen the profitability in the farmer group rising,” highlights Bansal.

Since the situation in farming changes every year depending on the weather and rainfall, they compare each year’s data with the conventional farmers not engaged with them on both organic and BCI practices. “We have seen a consistent 15-20% gap between the conventional farm income and the income of organic or BCI farmers engaged with us,” he adds.

Water saving
Besides the economic benefits, the initiative boasts of a slew of social and environmental advantages as well. While in organic, farmers don’t use chemical fertilisers at all so their health gets positively impacted, in BCI, use of certain harmful pesticides is restricted which again translates to better health.

Moreover, between 2015 and 2018, as per the company, farmers in BCI used 27% less water versus conventional farmers in the same area. About 29% less fertiliser and 15% less pesticide use was also witnessed during the same period. Part of the change can also be attributed to the series of educational trainings conducted for farmers towards more effective water management. These included knowhow on water requirement during critical growth stages of the crop, the precautions necessary while using micro irrigation, soil and water management and varied water application methods.

IMPACT – WATER – BCI Case Study (2)
Source - Arvind Ltd. Illustrations by Ashmeet Kaur

“Our work with cotton farmers ensures that we minimise the negative impacts of farming and enhance farmer livelihoods. Cotton and water are two key pillars of our sustainability work. We believe there are commercially viable technologies available to recycle water and shift completely from fresh water usage. Tremendous opportunity exists in reducing the impact on land use and convert it to positive impact on the environment as well as farmer livelihoods,” reveals Bansal.

Rising consumer conscientiousness
Consumer awareness and the diverse health benefits offered by such farming practices have led to a spike in BCI demand from brands in the last 2-3 years. Arvind alone has seen its BCI cotton demand grow two to three fold in the past 4 years.

Moreover, there is far more awareness now on how cotton is grown, its negative impacts and water usage. “There is a lot of data and research by scientists and government agencies on water usage, chemical and pesticide usage in the soil in the cotton fields. This momentum of data knowledge which is building up is reaching the consumer level also. They strongly believe that the negative interventions of cotton farming can be minimised,” says Bansal.

Regards organic farming, however, the company, did experience a bit of a downturn in between. “The challenge has been felt more on the organic cotton side specifically because of the rapid spread of BT cotton, which is genetically modified cotton while in organic, we cannot use genetically modified cotton. We have to use the desi Indian varieties of cotton seeds. So getting hold of good cotton seeds has been a challenge because the development focus was on the BT cotton seeds’ development,” adds Bansal.

The last 2-3 years, though have seen the focus back on the development of seeds by private agencies as well as government institutes and their organic portfolio has started looking up again.

The future
Over the next 4-5 years, Arvind has plans to ramp up the area under cotton cultivation to 400,000 acres of BCI as well as organic farming. The company is also looking at more projects and new cotton sourcing regions in the times to come.

And there are other factors also that are helping to build this up. Their strategy to work with local partners has panned out effectively enough. “We engage local NGOs who are already established in the region to work with farmers on BCI principles and practices and help them with technical knowhow and purchase of the cotton,” says Bansal.
Sustainable cotton farming key focus at Arvind (1)
Source - Arvind Ltd. Illustrations by Ashmeet Kaur

Interestingly, the waves of change are sweeping through everywhere. Ranjit is eager to narrate how they keep aside 40 kilos per day of a village land’s produce to feed the birds. “Output of that particular land only goes for birds. This is to maintain biodiversity. By tradition, if a lot of birds come to your field, they will eat up the insects and pests that can harm crops. It is a great practice,” he chuckles victoriously.
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