March 20, 2017

Elves in the Wardrobe Love Organic Cotton

By Verena Barthel
organic cotton

Here at Elves in the Wardrobe we love to talk about organic cotton because it not only feels great on our little one’s skin, but also has a positive impact on many other levels. So, let’s talk a bit more about Organic Cotton!

What is organic cotton production?

Organic cotton production does not simply mean replacing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides with organic ones. Organic cultivation methods are based more on knowledge of agronomic processes than input-based conventional production is.

Organic Cotton
Cotton field (Mali)

The systemic approach aims to establish a diverse and balanced farming ecosystem. This ideally includes all types of crops and farm activities. Farms need to complete a two-year conversion period to change their production system from conventional to organic. An essential element of organic cotton production is the careful selection of varieties adapted to local conditions in terms of climate, soil and robustness to pests and diseases.

Soil fertility management and crop nutrition are based on crop diversification and organic inputs such as compost, mulch and manures. Pest management measures focus essentially on pest prevention and the stimulation of a balanced ecosystem.

Soil fertility management

The organic matter, which only accounts for 0.5 to 5 % of the soil, is of crucial importance for a soil’s fertility and water retention capacity. It ensures a good porosity and good infiltration of water. Organic matter particles keep the soil moist for a long time and retain essential nutrients for plants. Moreover, organic material hosts numerous beneficial soil organisms that improve soil fertility. Many soils on conventional farms lack organic matter due to intensive cultivation and an overuse of mineral fertilizers.

To obtain good and stable soil fertility, organic farmers ensure a continuous supply of organic material to the soil. The most important source are residues of the crops grown on the field itself, such as leaves, stalks and roots, and they are applied to the soil in the form of green manure, mulch or compost. Other sources include organic manures, oil cakes and liquid fertilizers such as (biogas) slurry.

Organic Cotton Field

Compost heaps (India, 2004)

Composting transforms organic material from the farm into high-value natural manure. Compost, applied to the field as basal application or as a top dressing, provides the crop with well-balanced nutrients and helps increase soil organic matter content.
Integrating animal husbandry into cotton production provides the farm with high-quality manure. Correct storage of the manure (not too moist, not too dry) is essential in order not to lose nutrients. The manure should preferably be integrated into the compost along with other organic materials. Lots of peasant families use cattle as their farm “mechanisation”.

Cattle (Burkina Faso, 2008)
Organic Cattle
Cattle ploughing (India, 2005)

Crop rotation and mixed cropping are essential elements in organic cotton production in order to maintain soil fertility. Rotation helps prevent leaching from soils, a build-up of critical pest populations and also diseases and weeds. As the organic cultivation method dispenses with mineral nitrogen fertilizers, it is important to grow cotton in rotation with leguminous plants such as beans, peas or soya beans. They fix nitrogen from the air and make it available to the plant, thus improving soil fertility.

To maintain soil fertility, water and wind erosion should be prevented. Applying compost and practicing mixed cropping contribute significantly to making soils less prone to erosion. As further measures, green fences or stone walls can be built around fields.

Pest management

In conventional farming, cotton is considered a crop that is highly sensitive to pest attack. Large quantities of synthetic pesticides are sprayed to keep them under control. In organic farming, however, the use of synthetic pesticides is not allowed.

The organic approach adopts a completely different approach: the aim is first and foremost to prevent pests from even becoming a problem by establishing a diverse and balanced farm ecosystem and by monitoring pest populations carefully. Organic pest management strategies include:

Crop rotation: Monocultures provide potential cotton pests with abundant food sources, causing their populations to increase rapidly. Furthermore, the use of pesticides against major pests can result in secondary pests (Internal link) becoming a problem. Crop rotation, however, helps to keep pests at a low level by establishing a natural balance.

Mixed cultivation: Has a similar effect to crop rotation but on a smaller area within the same cultivation period and the same field.

Promotion of natural enemies: Not using pesticides and diversifying crops benefits natural enemies of cotton pests such as birds, ladybirds, beetles, spiders, parasitic wasps, bugs and ants. They help the farmer keep pest attacks at tolerable levels. Providing suitable habitats for natural enemies such as ladybirds or lacewings can help to increase and establish their populations.

lady bird

Trap crops: Some cotton pests prefer crops like maize, sunflower, okra (lady finger), sorghum, pigeon pea or hibiscus to cotton. By growing these crops along with cotton as a trap crop, the cotton crop is spared. In Tanzania, experience has shown that sunflower is an efficient trap crop for the American bollworm. In West Africa, the use of okra as a trap crop shows satisfying results in fighting bollworms and other cotton pests. In addition to their positive impact in terms of pest control, these crops can be harvested and thus contribute to diversified production systems.

Natural pesticides: If preventive measures are not sufficiently efficient and pest populations exceed the economic threshold, a number of natural pesticides can be used in organic cotton cultivation.

Harvest and post-harvest quality management

Usually, the organic cotton price is fixed according to the quality of the seed cotton. The most important measures to improve organic cotton quality during and after harvest are as follows:

  • Remove leaves, capsules and damaged bolls from the cotton harvest.
  • Pick and transport harvested cotton in clean cotton cloth material, never in nylon or other synthetic fabrics in order to avoid contamination with foreign fibres (from clothes, human hair, packaging material, etc.).
  • Pick only mature cotton. Unripe cotton fibres do not absorb dyes well enough.
  • Keep the cotton harvest dry. It should be picked in dry conditions, avoiding harvesting when there is morning dew or after rainfall. Storage also needs to be in a dry place.
  • Prevent cotton from becoming contaminated with dust or chemicals, especially fertilizers, pesticides and petroleum.
  • The use of any storage pest control (e.g. DDT) on harvest cotton is prohibited.
  • Clearly separate organic cotton from non-organic cotton or cotton in conversion in order to avoid mixing.


Benefits of Organic Cotton

Organic cotton shows great benefits at various levels of the value chain. Farmers, traders, retailers and consumers all benefit from the economic, social and ecological advantages of organic cotton projects.


Benefits for Retailers

Benefits for Consumers

Fairtrade and Organic – the combination with a difference

Fairtrade is primarily a social label and focuses on improving the working and living conditions of smallholder farmers in the South. However, Fairtrade standards also include environmental criteria. Organic is explicitly linked to environmentally friendly agriculture. It is not just the environment that benefits from its ban on the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; farmers’ health is all the better for it too. Fairtrade and organic complement each other perfectly. Combining the two is a way of strengthening the position of farming families socially and environmentally as well as supporting their development.