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The true potential of organic cotton

The true potential of organic cotton: The crop with far-reaching benefits for people and planet

A prosperous organic cotton sector benefits everyone—from farmer to consumer. To realize the sector’s potential, we need to bring about the conditions that will allow the crop that safeguards the environment and enhances farmer livelihoods to flourish.

The issue as to whether growing organic cotton produces lower yields is a hot topic. Clarity on this issue is important for understanding how far the lower social and environmental costs of organic cotton production are realized in practice.[1]

To understand this issue, it is helpful to distinguish between organic cotton farming’s potential and what still needs to be done to fully realize that potential. Worldwide, organic cotton yield figures are highly variable. Organic cotton fiber yields reach up to 1,687 kg per hectare in Turkey, but just 508 kg per hectare in India, the world’s largest producer of organic cotton.[2] Reaching the higher end of this yield spectrum is possible if the right enabling conditions are in place.

“More needs to be done to bring about the enabling conditions for a thriving organic cotton sector”

This is why OCA partners have joined forces to solve the sector’s problems and ensure the yields and benefits of organic cotton reach their full potential. OCA partners are piloting interventions designed to improve the organic cotton farmer business case, increase transparency in the supply chain, and secure availability and access to quality, high-yielding organic seed varieties. OCA plans to scale these interventions to ensure the environmental, economic and social benefits of organic cotton are fully maximized.

Redirecting investment and efforts in the sector in such an aligned way will help to overcome concerns that organic cotton is a high cost and scarce crop.  At present, organic cotton makes up less than 0.47% of the global cotton market, based on latest available figures from 2014-15.[3] OCA partners are working together to enhance the integrity of organic cotton and better align supply and demand mechanisms. This will help organic cotton to reach economies of scale, and become more price competitive and readily available to consumers.

Moreover, when it comes to cotton growing, the costs are not always financial. The negative environmental and social externalities of conventionally grown cotton are not included in the final retail price. Supporting organic also means supporting a system that is dedicated to enhancing environmental protection, promoting a long-term and resilient cotton sector, and enhancing farmer livelihoods.

It is important to bring awareness to issues associated with cotton production but OCA believes this should lead towards more discussions on the potential of organic. The benefits of this sector for people and planet are too great to miss, and the solutions to unlocking these benefits lie within our reach. OCA is dedicated to continuing its collective action to allow the organic cotton sector to reach its full potential.

OCA hopes to include others who believe in the potential of organic cotton in the movement towards the creation of a prosperous sector. For more information on the benefits of organic cotton and to find out more about OCA’s work, email us at secretariat@organiccottonaccelerator.org.

1. The Benefits of Organic Cotton


Image: Organic Cotton Accelerator

Organic cotton farming techniques bring positive environmental and social impacts:

1. Organic farming helps to lower greenhouse gas emissions and enhance long-term ecosystem preservation by promoting healthy soils that store high quantities of carbon.[4]

2. Organic cotton farmers commit to using natural interventions wherever possible, and avoid the use of synthetic chemicals and pesticides (organic pesticides are permitted but are severely restricted and only used as a last resort).[5]

3. Avoiding genetically modified crops encourages hybrid variation in cotton seeds, which helps to preserve and develop locally suited and climate-resilient seed varieties. By contributing to increasing the diversity of cultivars, organic cotton is more resilient to potential pathogens than genetically homogenous monocultures.[6]

4. As organic agricultural practices build organic matter in soils, they have a higher water holding capacity and less water is used overall for organic cotton farming.[7]

5. Organic cotton farming also brings multiple benefits to farmers, especially smallholders who make up the vast percentage of all cotton farmers.[8] Under the right conditions, organic farming offers better livelihoods to farmers through a combination of lower production costs and reduced indebtedness.[9] This is because organic farmers do not rely on the costly chemical inputs that smallholder conventional cotton farmers spend up to 60% of their annual income on.[10] In addition, the premium prices paid for organic products helps farmers to increase their incomes, while the non-use of agro-chemicals contributes to better health.[11]

6. Organic cotton is mostly farmed in rotation with other crops. Organic farmers grow an average of six other food crops alongside organic cotton on their farms, especially in countries like India.[12] This more holistic farming approach brings numerous benefits, such as enhanced food security and safer food crops.[13]

2. Common Misconceptions Explained

  1. Water use

In 2014, Textile Exchange undertook a comprehensive Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of organic cotton which found that there are savings of 1,982 gallons of water for each t-shirt made from organic cotton as compared to conventional cotton.[14] This study was based on a comparison with the figures and methodology used for an earlier LCA for conventional cotton carried out by Cotton Inc.[15]

There a number of reasons why organic cotton farming results in much lower water use. Organic agricultural practices use natural methods to build up organic matter in soils,[16] resulting in up to 30% more water retention as compared to conventional cotton.[17] Organic cotton farming also contributes towards improved water quality because of the avoidance of chemical water pollution.[18]

  1. Chemical/fertilizer use

The relationship between organic cotton farming and artificial chemical and pesticide use is often misrepresented. In organic agriculture, artificial chemicals are prohibited and pesticides are severely restricted. Instead, organic agriculture relies on natural methods for disease and pest prevention, such as sustainable crop rotations, using wildlife to control pests and disease, and preserving nutrient-rich soils and resilient crops. For this reason, approximately 2.8 kilograms of hazardous pesticides and 363 kilograms of chemical fertilizers are avoided for each kilogram of organic cotton produced.[19]

Under very strict circumstances and as a last resort, organic farmers are permitted to use 15 highly regulated naturally-derived pesticides. This is in contrast to the 320 conventional pesticides which can routinely be used in non-organic farming.[20] As a result, potentially harmful chemicals and pesticides are primarily avoided when growing organic cotton.

  1. Energy use

Surprisingly, it has been claimed that links have been found between organic farming and higher greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, organic cotton farming practices go hand-in-hand with much lower emissions than are produced when growing conventional cotton. As organic farming does not rely on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and herbicides, growing organic cotton does not contribute to the significant emissions associated with the production and use of such inputs.[21] In addition, the natural farming methods used in organic agriculture are highly effective at storing humus in soils, a stable form of organic carbon.[22] As a result this is estimated to reduce the global warming potential of organic cotton by up to 46% compared to non-organic cotton.[23]

  1. Biotechnology

It has been claimed that applications of biotechnology, such as the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds, has contributed to efficiency gains and thus the overall sustainability benefits of conventional cotton farming.

Organic agriculture avoids the use of GM seeds. Instead, organic cotton farming is committed to maintaining a diverse stock of traditional organic cotton cultivars, including more locally suited and climate resilient seed varieties.[24] As a result, organic cotton growing promotes biodiversity, and is more able to thrive under situations of resource constraints, which adds to the importance of the organic cotton sector in the context of climate change.[25] Organic variety seed can also be used again by farmers whereas GM seeds need to be bought every season.


[1] FiBL, 2005. The Impact of Organic Cotton Farming on the Livelihoods of Smallholders


[2] Textile Exchange, 2016. Organic Cotton Market Report 2016


[3] Internal OCA analysis based on ICAC figures

[4] IFOAM, 2009. Organic Agriculture: A Guide to Climate Change & Food Security


[5] IFOAM, 2008. Criticisms and Frequent Misconceptions about Organic Agriculture


[6] Harvard School of Public Health, 2017. Biodiversity and Agriculture


[7] IFOAM, 2009. The Contribution of Organic Agriculture to Climate Change Adaptation in Africa


[8] Fairtrade, 2017. About Cotton


[9] FiBL, 2005. The Impact of Organic Cotton Farming on the Livelihoods of Smallholders


[10] Pesticide Action Network UK, 2017. Pesticide Concerns in Cotton


[11] PAN Germany, 2012. Pesticides and Health Hazards: Facts and Figures


[12] Soil Association, 2014. Organic cotton helps to feed the world

[13] IFOAM, 2005. Organic Agriculture and Food Security


[14] Textile Exchange, 2014.  Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Organic Cotton


[15] Cotton Incorporated, 2012. Life Cycle Assessment of Cotton Fiber & Fabric


[16] FAO, 2015. Soils Store and Filter Water


[17] Textile Exchange, 2017. Organic Cotton Farm Hub: Water


[18] FAO, 2017. Organic Agriculture


[19] Internal OCA analysis based on Textile Exchange figures

[20] Soil Association, 2017. Organic Living.


[21]IFOAM, 2009. Organic Agriculture: A Guide to Climate Change & Food Security


[22] FAO, 2005. The Importance of Soil Organic Matter


[23] Soil Association, 2015. Cool Cotton: Organic Cotton and Climate Change


[24] Messmer et al, 2014. Participatory Cotton Breeding and Cultivar Evaluation for Organic Smallholders in India


[25] Harvard School of Public Health, 2017. Biodiversity and Agriculture