In November 2019, the co-founders of SupplyCompass travelled to Chetna Organic in Adilabad, India, to better understand their values and commitment to sustainable farming practices. Chetna Organic is a unique entity in the farming ecosystem that still exerts enormous pressure on natural resources and human labour to feed the demands of the global fashion system. Chetna’s aim is to help farmers (many of whom are from tribal communities) to switch to organic and self-sufficient methods of farming and increase profits as well.
Chetna Organic operates in the three rain-fed states of Telangana, Orissa and Maharashtra in India, the largest producer of cotton in the world.
Founded in 2004 as the Chetna Organic & Fair Trade Cotton Intervention Program, their programs are multi-dimensional across social, environmental and economic indicators, including community, entrepreneurial and watershed development, revitalizing natural resources and partnering with various development organizations, governments and certification bodies on truly impactful projects.
Farmers growing cotton generally own small holdings of around 2-3 acres. Cotton farming is a turbulent and uncertain job, largely dependent on natural weather conditions. Drought and flooding often affect the yield and satisfactory growing conditions for the crop are only expected every 2 out of 5 years, on average.
Chetna helps farmers with access to the right organic seeds and provides practical education, including how to lay out their land and information on additional plants that can be grown on boundaries to help with food security and generate enough natural compost for feeding the land. Promoting fair trade practices across the breadth of their practice, they also help farmers gain access to banking and other basic amenities, thus improving the quality of both lives and livelihoods.
With conventional cotton, farmers invest a significant amount in chemical pesticides and fertilizers at the start of the season. They quickly become reliant on these investments, having to buy more each year as they become less effective, leading to a dangerous cycle, hard to exit. Inundating the ground with chemicals consequently, has largely detrimental effects. Over-fertilized soils will often lose their tubular form and become much more likely to form deep cracks, leading to the soil losing its healthy characteristics in the process. This, in turn, can lead to any rain penetrating the soil incredibly quickly and deeply rather than slowly seeping in (which is preferable for the cotton plant’s shallow and dispersed root structure).
Going organic has allowed farmers to be self-reliant, providing us with better food security and live healthier lives whilst still maintaining the same income.
However, converting to organic farming is a concern that extends beyond merely pay and income. Farming can be an exceedingly harsh occupation and one of the key factors that makes it so tough is the uncertainty that envelopes it. Organic farming is about giving farms greater certainty of income and food on the table. Other benefits include improved basic health – continuous exposure to chemical fertilizers and pesticides have been linked to long-term effects including reproductive problems, acute poisoning, cancers and other neurological diseases.
Organic cotton farming comes with its own set of challenges, as it competes with conventional farming in the larger textile production system.
Yields are generally lower in quantity and a period of traditionally three years is required to prepare the soil, proving to be a difficult stop gap for many farmers. Fewer crops are grown on the land, compared to conventional cotton farming, as holistic crop rotation practices are required for maintaining soil fertility and biodiversity. Weeds on the land require time and hard labour to remove. Bio-manure used as a substitute for chemical fertilizers and obtained from livestock, can be difficult to produce in the right quantities as some villages do not own enough livestock. Educating farmers on setting up their farms to the right standards required and creating a successful transition can also be complex. Scalability, procuring the right non-hybrid, sustainable seeds and the limited demand for organic cotton (due to the higher prices) are other obstacles that need to be overcome.
There are not enough conversations about the importance of organic farming techniques for maintaining soil quality.
Visiting Chetna helped to understand first-hand, the long-term benefits of organic cotton farming, as well as the complexities and challenges to unpack. The future of organic cotton farming is exciting and inspiring, with the power to revolutionise how the fashion industry functions as well as its impact on the planet; SupplyCompass is thus, proud to partner with Chetna Organic.
View the cotton chapter of our Sustainable Material Guide
Nayanika is a designer, writer and illustrator whose work spans research, storytelling and strategy for sustainability in fashion. Her interests specifically lie in sustainable supply chains, craft production/innovation, circular economies and design for social innovation. She graduated from the prestigious MA Fashion Futures program at London College of Fashion with a Distinction in 2019, and has researched at and written for Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Fashion Revolution, amongst others.
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