The measure of the changes that occur in a small Indian rural community that has participated in the shift from conventional cotton farming to organic cotton farming, cannot be gauged solely by analysing the enrichment of the soil, it must be seen against the broad canvas of village life and especially that of the farmers and their families.
There are two major negative aspects facing the Indian farmer when it comes to being dependant on conventional cotton growing.
The first is the debilitating costs of genetically modified cotton seeds, coupled with the artificially inflated price of chemical fertilizer, these can add up to 60% of the total cost of producing a seasons’ cotton. A burden that most impoverished Indian farmers cannot hope to carry.
The second is the harmful and in many cases life threatening shadow of being directly exposed to the use of the pesticides and insecticides that are part of conventional cotton growing cycle.
The natural soil nutrients are severely depleted as a direct result of being saturated with these artificial and poisonous chemicals. The soil becomes harder and more compact and thus the crop yields were lowered.
Lower crop yields mean lower income for the farmers, who by their very situation are one of the poorest sectors of the Indian nation.
One bad season, one failed crop can mean disaster to a farmer struggling under the burden of debt that exists under the regime of conventional cotton growing.
How does organic cotton growing in India help farmers get out from under the weight of this debt- ridden cycle?
The first and foremost step along the path to economic and social freedom is to STOP using genetically modified seeds (GMOs) and to STOP applying artificially produced fertilizers and insecticides on their cotton crops.
This is what Indian organic cotton farmers have to do to achieve their goal of becoming self-sustaining organic cotton growers.
Firstly, they allow the fields to grow only natural crops of legumes or rye to either naturally replenish the nitrogen supply in the soil or to sow a crop that will enhance water retention properties in the same soil.
There has to be a 3year period in which no artificial fertilizer or chemical insecticides are used on the land.
The soil is then tested and if it is found to be free of chemicals, it is declared to be classified as ORGANIC. This is the first step in the farmers’ road to producing organic cotton crops.
The next step, and just as an important step, is that the farmer must procure a supply of natural cotton seeds. No GMO’s are allowed.
At this point the farmer has his certified organic soil and his naturally produced cotton seeds.
If he does not have artificial fertilisers then how does he fertilise his crops, where will he obtain the needed fertilizer?
All crops need some form of fertilisation.
The farmers’ basic supply of natural fertilizer comes from his cattle. An average size cow can produce approximately 15 to 20 tonnes of manure per year. It is estimated that 6 to 10 tones of manure per acre is needed in a single season. In this instance it can be seen that one cow can produce enough manure to fertilize 3 acres of land.
On average, an acre of land in India, growing organic cotton produces, 360 kilograms of cotton lint and 600 kilograms of cotton seed residue, which can be sold for cattle feed. These figures show conclusively the vital input that cattle manure can supply to the organic cotton growing process. One cow can fertilize enough farmland to grow around one tonne of cotton and nearly 3 tonnes of cotton seeds.
In his endeavours the farmer has another ally, the humble and unobtrusive earthworm. Earthworms can be easily cultivated by the farmer and his family, and can have a significant impact on the quality of the soil in which they are placed.
Given the right conditions, these worms are prolific breeders and each worm can produce up to 3 grams of manure each day.
An average Indian farmer who employs earthworms as an integral part of his organic cultivation program can receive between 120 and 150 kilograms of first class manure each day. Worm farming or Vermiculture should be a major component in the organic cotton farmers’ natural fertilizing process.
An added feature to employing earthworms to the natural fertilizing process is that the worms loosen the soil, which enables better water penetration and moisture retention. This process is especially significant during the wet monsoon season, when the soil needs to soak up and retain as much moisture as possible as a buffer against the coming dry season.
The farmer now has chemically free land and natural fertilization allies in his cattle and his family cultivated earthworms.
No more dangerous chemicals to cope with.
The human cost of the excessive use of chemicals is sadly all too obvious. Most people who comes in contact with these products are adversely affected. There are skin disorders, breathing problems, neurological issues, etc. Far too many of these unfortunate disorders can be directly attributed to having been exposed to these toxic chemicals that are used in conventional cotton fertilizers.
To all farmers that are practicing organic cotton farming this distancing themselves from traditional levels of toxic chemicals comes as a blessing not only for themselves and their families, but for their neighbors and their communities in general.
It has been noted that organic cotton farming is more labour intensive than conventional cotton growing. This fact is not in dispute. Organic farming of any kind is more labour intensive, though the other side of the coin is there are lower farming costs, higher prices for organically produced cotton and a much better and healthier life for the whole farming community.
A bonus that appears to come from participating in organic cotton farming is the incredible increase the farmers are receiving in the number of growing cycles that they are getting out of a single plant. The farmers were only getting a single cycle out of genetically modified seeds, now they are confirmed to be getting anything up to five cycles per plant. This is an enormous saving for an impoverished Indian cotton farmer.
How can anyone who has not had the opportunity to experience the diverse and devout religious culture of India, even begin to understand the adverse effects of conventional cotton growing has had on these people.
Let us take, for example, the Jain form of Hinduism (many Indian farmers are Jains).
Jains practice a very strict code of conduct. They believe that nothing should be killed. Nothing. Not humans, not animals and not insects. They have endless discussions with their spiritual leaders on how to best handle the insect situation on their farms. One answer is to employ the use of phorone traps, which are a method devised by scientists, to use female scents to attract the male moths. This system has worked extremely well. With less male moths around there are less chances of successful matings, which means less insect pests to have to cope with.
Habitats have been created to entice the local bird population to return to the organic fields. The bird populations of these areas have been decimated by eating contaminated insects that were themselves victims of chemical insecticides.
These bird numbers are increasing rapidly as a result of feeding on their natural food supply that is free from toxic poisoning.
Another link in the organic cotton chain, is the need to find and economically produce naturally occurring substances that act as organic insecticides.
One such substance is a natural insecticide that is produced from the Margosa or Neem tree. It is a native tree of India and is often referred to as the Wonder Tree.
The produce of the Margosa tree has been used for centuries in India as a natural insecticide. Where there is one natural insecticide, there will be more. The greater the effort that is put into the challenge of finding organic pesticides and insecticides, the sooner more and more solutions will be found.
Organic cotton is harvested by hand. Depending on the location and the seasonal conditions, it can take around 175 to 225 days for a particular cotton crop to bloom.
In traditional cotton growing it is more common than not, to use chemical defoliants to strip leaves of the plants and to hasten the ripening of the cotton bolls, as the buds of the cotton are called. This practice is strictly forbidden on organic cotton farms. The bolls are allowed to open naturally under organic cotton farming practices.
Thus women, who are the traditional cotton pickers and who pick the cotton by hand are not subjected to handling toxic chemicals that have their residue all over the plants.