We used to apply fertilizers at every irrigation, but now we go for regular Cotton Ecosystem Analysis and only apply fertilizer and pesticides if we need to. By reducing expenses farmers are now getting a good income.”
Jam is one of around 40,000 farmers in Pakistan growing a commodity which hit the market in 2010: Better Cotton. In your IKEA furnishings or Levi 501s, Better Cotton and conventional cotton look and feel identical – but on the ground, when they grow, they’re very different.
Creating OpportunityCotton is vital to Pakistan’s economy. It’s the world’s third largest cotton grower, and cotton and textiles make up 55 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings. But the way cotton is usually produced can have severe environmental impacts.
Vast amounts of water are sucked from rivers like the Indus to irrigate cotton fields. It can take more than 4,500 litres of water to grow a kilo of conventional cotton – enough for just one pair of jeans.
Falling water levels threaten freshwater ecosystems, millions of people and the future of the cotton industry itself. Threequarters of all pesticide use in Pakistan is down to cotton. This leads to river and groundwater pollution, and many people become ill or even die from pesticide or fertilizer poisoning.
In the Indus, falling water levels and pollution have caused numbers of the endangered Indus river dolphin to plummet to just 1,600. It’s part of a worrying worldwide trend: WWF’s Living Planet Report 2010 showed that populations of tropical freshwater species have fallen by 70 per cent since 1970.
In 2006, with support from IKEA, WWF began a pilot project to promote better ways of growing cotton. Due to its immediate success, the project evolved into a multistakeholder member-based organization called the Better Cotton Initiative. Through the initiative, Pakistani farmers reduced their use of water by 37 per cent, pesticides by 47 per cent and chemical fertilizer by 40 per cent across over 170,000 hectares by 2010. With yields just as good, and an average increase in income of 15 percent through reduced water and chemical use, working conditions and living standards have already improved in many communities.
Better Management PracticesIrrigating just the furrows instead of whole fields. Digging organic matter back into the soil. Applying natural pesticides when and where they’re needed, instead of spraying the whole crop – which kills beneficial insects as well as pests. Basic safety measures, like not entering a field for 24 hours after spraying.
Some of these are things that progressive farmers like Bilal Khan, Director of the Farmers Associates Pakistan – a BCI member – were already doing. WWF and industry partners worked with them and cotton scientists to help develop standards for growing Better Cotton, and to bring this knowledge to thousands of Pakistani cotton farmers. Most are very receptive, Bilal says.
“A good idea spreads like wildfire. Water is very expensive, especially if you’re pumping it with a diesel pump – so if you can use 30 per cent less that’s a huge saving,” says Bilal. “Some less ethical pesticide salespeople tell farmers that all bugs are enemies, so they’re happy to discover that some are friendly.”
Corporate CommitmentsBilal believes all cotton should become Better Cotton – and global demand can make that happen. WWF is working together with industry partners like IKEA, Levi’s, H&M, Adidas and Marks & Spencer – all BCI members – to increase both market demand and production.
“We’ve committed to using 100 per cent Better Cotton by 2015 and the likelihood of reaching that target is extremely high,” says Guido Verijke, the man in charge of IKEA’s global textiles business. “From our projects, we’re already creating more capacity than we need ourselves.”
The goal is to make Better Cotton a mainstream commodity – not an expensive niche product. “In the future, better cotton will be a precondition,” says Guido. “Sustainability won’t be something people will applaud – it will be something they expect.”