Better cotton hits the market

Posted on 28 February 2011  | 
Camels transport cotton in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Sustainable cotton, produced using less water and pesticides is now expected to reach global markets next year.
© WWF / Mauri RautkariEnlarge
Four years after WWF first demonstrated how to cultivate cotton using less water and fewer harmful chemicals, the first “Better Cotton” has been produced in India and Pakistan.

More than 90% of the water taken from the Indus river in Pakistan and the Godavari in India is used to irrigate crops – particularly those considered “thirsty,” such as cotton. Agriculture is the main source of income for rural communities, but it’s also the main user of water. What’s more, cultivation of cotton is responsible for half the pesticide use in India. In Pakistan the figure is around 75%.

The result is contaminated water and reduced water levels, which are harming people and wildlife living along these rivers. For example, pollution and fragmentation of the Indus River has caused numbers of the endangered Indus river dolphin to plummet to just 1,600.

In 2006, in collaboration with IKEA, and with support from the European Commission from 2007, WWF set out to help create solutions to these problems. By working with businesses, governments, farmers and others, we helped develop practices that would enable cotton farmers to use lower volumes of water, synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers – while increasing their yield and gross margins.

The practices are not high-tech. For instance, we suggested irrigating alternate furrows, rather than flooding entire crop fields. We encouraged farmers to water only when their plants really needed it – and came up with tips to identify when this was. And we promoted the use of natural materials rather than chemicals to fertilize their land. We also taught them to distinguish between pests on their crops and insects that are beneficial, and to use organic pest control.

It was tough to convince some farmers at first, which is why we ran farmer field schools and established demonstration plots, so the farmers could see the results for themselves. “It’s really inspiring to see how enthusiastically farmers have embraced these changes,” says Becci May, South Asia Freshwater Programme Manager with WWF-UK. “So many farmers are adopting these techniques, it’s becoming more difficult to find ‘control’ plots to measure performance against.”

The results speak for themselves. For example, in 2009, around 25,000 cotton farmers in Pakistan were using these practices on 100,000 hectares. These farmers have reduced their use of water by 39%, pesticides by 47% and chemical fertilizer by 40% on average. And their income has increased by 11% – largely thanks to a reduction in the amount they spend on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. In 2010, in India and Pakistan, WWF was working with almost 50,000 farmers.

In 2010, the first cotton produced in Pakistan and India that meets the criteria of the Better Cotton Initiative hit the market.

This means partners who’ve supported our work, including IKEA and Marks & Spencer, can begin to meet their commitments to source cotton that they know has a lower impact on the environment, people and wildlife. Their demand will ensure a market for the farmers who are making these positive changes.

Camels transport cotton in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Sustainable cotton, produced using less water and pesticides is now expected to reach global markets next year.
© WWF / Mauri Rautkari Enlarge

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