India’s organic cotton exports are a scam, says the New York Times in an investigation. India supplies half of the organic cotton sold globally, but much of it may be conventional, genetically modified cotton. Khargone district in Madhya Pradesh is supposed to be the hub of organic cotton production but NYT reporters could meet few farmers who produced it, or could say where it could be found.
Demand for Indian organic cotton boomed after the United States banned organic cotton imports from China early last year following evidence of forced Uighur labour being used in the cotton-producing province of Xinjiang. The Uighur Muslim community is facing state repression in China, which wants to obliterate its culture. The price of organic cotton almost doubled from $1.70 a kg to $3. About 75,000 new organic cotton farmers registered with Apeda, the agricultural produce export promotion authority. India’s organic cotton production doubled from 60,000 tonnes in 2017 to 124,000 tonnes in 2021.
Organic cotton yield is about 28 percent less than that of conventional cotton. It is also of lower quality as fibre length is shorter. But the premium paid is supposed to compensate farmers for lower yield and higher costs. That does not happen because brands use their bargaining power to beat down prices.
NYT cites the example of a farmer in Khargone who converted his 11-acre farm to organic cotton. It took him three years to eliminate all traces of chemical pesticides and fertiliser from the farm. He harvested his first organic cotton last year but suffered a loss, despite the premium which a Swiss foundation paid him under a buyback arrangement.
At the heart of the scandal is the certification system. The international agencies that do the certification reply on third party inspectors in India, who get paid by those whose produce they certify. This creates a conflict of interest. There is also no central database to register the certificates. So, there is rampant trading in certificates, and it is the traders who gain. The amount of organic cotton traded can be double, triple or even four times the actual production as it moves up the supply chain from farm to the ginning mill, to the spinning facility, the weaving mill and the buying agency. The inspectors do not track every consignment. Instead, they issue certificates based on annual visits to facilities like a ginning mill, or random visits to farms supposedly producing organic cotton.
According to a textile exchange, India’s organic cotton production increased 48 percent last year.
The European Union no longer accepts certificates issued by three of the main certifying agencies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has terminated its agreement with state agency Apeda; it does not recognises produce certified as organic by certifying agencies registered with it. All such companies in India must now be accredited by USDA National Organic Program standards. Last year, the EU also rejected Indian organic cotton exports certified by five foreign agencies after shipments of sesame were found to contain a carcinogenic substance.
Under the Modi government, India is aggressively promoting organic agriculture. Non-governmental organisations opposed to genetically-modified cotton are also pushing organic cotton. But there is little organic seed available as most farmers have switched to GM cotton since 2002. Last year, India produced 5.79 million tonnes of cotton, most of it GM.
To read the NYT article, click here.
(Photo of garment workers at Tirupur for representation only. Courtesy Tirupur Exporters Association)