Organic cotton at a crossroads

In India, organic cotton production is threatened because in just 12 years the cultivation of GM cotton has risen from 0% to 12%. This has led to a lack of reproducible seeds. Small farmers will now be helped to produce their own seed by a FiBL-supported project.

In India, three-quarters of the world’s organic cotton is produced by 184,000 small farmers on 253,000 ha, which corresponds to about 2% of the total area under cotton in India. (1) The future of organic cotton production in India is severely threatened. Since the introduction of genetically-modified cotton (GM) in India in 2002, the area of GM-cultivated cotton has increased dramatically and now represents 92% of cultivated cotton surfaces.

Valuable genetic resources are lost

GM varieties, protected by patents and marketed by private seed companies, are displacing the varieties derived from traditional breeding and selection. This predominance of genetically-modified cotton in recent years has led to the collapse of the GM-free cotton market and the loss of many valuable species, genetic resources and local varieties of cotton.

The few cases of GM-free cotton seeds that can still be found are usually contaminated with GMOs, which eventually causes the withdrawal of organic cotton certification, resulting in significant financial losses for the farmers. Small Indian farmers are then forced to abandon the "organic cotton" label in favour of others that allow GMOs and pesticides; or else they turn to other crops such as soybeans or corn, or try to produce their own organic seeds.

Farmers being trained in selection techniques

Support small farmers

BioRe® India Ltd., with Coop Natura supplier Remei, are determined to follow this path and help small farmers produce their own seed. But this cannot be done overnight. We must first find appropriate reproducible varieties that are resistant to pests, and require less nutrients and water, yet have a fibre quality that meets the exacting standards of today’s textile industry.

In partnership with Dharwad University, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) helps bioRe’s small farmers by carrying out variety trials. Over many years on small farms and in different regions, these trials have identified robust and reproducible varieties which are then increased by the farmers themselves. Meanwhile, in a participatory approach, cross-breeding and selection is undertaken, so that high quality varieties are available in the future for organic farming. These programs are supported by the Corymbo Foundation, the bioRe Foundation, the Coop Sustainability Fund and Switzerland’s Mercator Foundation.

Experimental cotton varieties in the field of Mahesh Singh Patel

Differences in cultivation

Cotton is a very demanding crop. It needs a lot of water and nutrients, and attracts many insects. Although cotton only accounts for 2.4% of the world’s cultivated area, 11% of all pesticides and 24% of all insecticides are used in its production. To meet this situation, 20 years ago with the aid of genetic engineering a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) was introduced into the genome of the cotton.

The Bt gene allows the plant to produce an antibody that is poisonous to its main pest, the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa zea). This should have reduced the need for insecticides. But this proved impossible as other pests such as certain types of mirid have developed strongly instead.

Organic cotton is produced with the greatest respect for nature, using closed cycles that obviate the addition of synthetic pesticides. The absence of insecticides improves the health of small farmers and reduces their dependence on the funds needed to buy agricultural chemicals. (2)

GM cotton dominates; the range of choices is reduced

Today, over 70% of cultivated cotton surfaces grow GM cotton varieties, and this trend is increasing ( This means that more than two thirds of cotton garments, such as jeans, use genetically modified cotton and we do not have the ability to choose, since there is no reporting obligation.

Mature cotton bolls

Without seed sovereignty, no freedom of choice

Only if small farmers control seed production can they produce GM-free cotton for the growing organic market.

This example shows the importance of seed sovereignty for farmers, if in the future we want to have freedom of choice. We should therefore not leave selection in the hands of commercial seed companies only, as selection determines the future evolution of our food and our crop plants. We should instead develop control of this evolution as a social mission in order to secure the foundation of our lives. Ultimately, it is the consumers who decide the future shape of our campaigns.

Monika Messmer
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)

(1) Farm & Fibre Report 2011-12
Textile Exchange 2013
(2) Forster et al. Yield and Economic Performance
of Organic and Conventional Cotton-based Farming Systems
Results from a Field Trial in India. Plos One, 2013, 8 (12)

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A pioneer in the textile industry, the Swiss textile company Remei has rigorously promoted the production of organic cotton, both in regard to its cultivation and its processing. Remei obtains its organic cotton from bioRe® India and bioRe® Tanzania where organic cotton production has been promoted for more than 20 years with the aim of improving the living standards of small farmers. The farmers receive advice and assistance in organic agricultural production, are guaranteed a market for their production, and are paid a premium over the local market price.