Agriculture and Environment: Cotton

The current production of cotton is not only environmentally unsustainable, it undermines the necessary conditions for future cotton production.

A tremendous amount of work will be required to bring cotton production into line with even minimally acceptable environmental standards.

Promoting sustainable production

The strategy then must be to focus on reducing the most significant impacts. Toward this end, the overall goal of a conservation strategy for cotton should be to promote the sustainable production and use of cotton by minimising the impacts of overall water withdrawal as well as pollution of freshwater ecosystems from cotton production (Soth 1999).

Reducing damages to freshwater systems

Measuring the impact on freshwater ecosystems could serve as a useful evaluation for the adoption of better practices. For example, impacts on fresh water will be reduced if less water is taken from rivers during key times, if fewer agrochemicals are used (because of more effective targeting), and if less soil is lost from erosion.

In order to evaluate improvements, it is important to have specific, measurable targets both for the environmental impacts of production and the percentage of cotton that is produced using improved techniques.

Organic farming & IPM

Some of the techniques will be the application of advanced irrigation technology and the use of more ecologically sound growing methods, such as organic farming or integrated pest management (IPM).

For farmers, the interest in sustainable cotton is direct. They stand to save water resources, maintain soil quality, maintain present and future incomes, and reduce health problems. It is also quite likely that they will actually save money by reducing expenditures for pesticides and other inputs.

For the rest of the cotton market chain, there is also direct interest in sustainable cotton production. Every business that buys and uses cotton - from yarn makers to weavers, textile manufactures, and retail clothing stores - has an interest in a stable, sustainable supply of cotton.

Impediments to the implementation of sustainable production

The issue, then, is how to promote more sustainable cotton production within the overall constraints of the current regulatory structure as well as the overall cotton market chain. Producers in different parts of the world do not have to comply with the same regulations and consequently have different production costs.

Furthermore, any additional regulatory changes in one country could put those producers at a disadvantage vis-à-vis unregulated producers in other countries. Changes to make production more sustainable also cost money in up-front investments. In addition, individual actors in a production chain respond to changing incentive structures which are often linked to overall governance.

In the absence of effective governance, transition costs will be inequitably distributed and will vary for the different players in the market chain (e.g., they will not be the same for producers as for many manufactures, etc.). With cotton, the higher costs of the transition to sustainability appear to fall disproportionately on the producers and manufactures.

However, the benefits are more likely to accrue to mass retailers who have a comparative advantage (in labelling, packaging, advertising, and possibly even certification) in creating and taking advantage of consumer interest but relatively few actual costs in changing production systems and reducing impacts on the ground (Banuri 1999).
 

Developing clean technologies

Switching to production systems that reduce environmental impacts will be impossible without the development of clean technologies. Alternative technologies exist for processing and are in the experimental stage of production, for example new technologies and management practices for organic and "green" cotton production.

While technologies exist at the conceptual stage that have been implemented with specific producers (at least for IPM), the dissemination and application have not yet bee undertaken, so the full range of feasible options is not yet identified (Banuri 1999).
 

Active government involvement

Banuri (1999) suggests that any feasible program to encourage sustainable cotton production must intervene in the existing governance systems. These systems need either to be strengthened to facilitate the transition or to be transformed through investments and environmentally based investment screens, technical assistance, environmental certification programs or buyer screens, or government regulatory programs based upon better management practices.

Whenever possible, these different approaches should be structured to send the same or complementary signals to the market chain so that they reinforce each other and increase the likelihood of success for each. Most initiatives to reduce the environmental impacts of cotton production are not producer-neutral (they do not affect all producers equally).

They will all tend to favour those participants with the strongest, most dominant positions in the market chain.

This includes those who have adopted more modern production approaches; who operate at a relatively large scale; who have preferential access to credit, technology, and/or government resources; who have a near-monopoly over a portion of the market chain; or who are able to take their profits first from the consumer dollar (Banuri 1999).

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