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Farming organic cotton without the need for health-harming pesticides

Switching to growing crops - including cotton - organically and without the need for polluting pesticides is resulting in higher crop yields and healthier, happier farmers in Ethiopia. It’s a slap in the face for those clinging to the idea cotton can only be grown using pesticides and is a real success story for Pesticide Action Nexus Ethiopia. Bel Jacobs reports.


Wudinesh Koricho is a cotton and maize farmer - and mother to seven - in the village of Shelle Mella, in Ethiopian Rift Valley. She is talking about her work in one of PAN-Ethiopia’s Farmer Field Schools: “Previously, we were spraying DDT and Malathion onto our cotton crops,” she says.


“The men were carrying the pesticides on their back and the women were mixing it. The pesticides flowed into the rivers and caused health problems to the children as well as the farmers.”


Wudinesh stops to open her notebook at a page of carefully hand drawn insects. “Now, we know the advantages and disadvantages of pesticides and we’ve learned the difference between pests and beneficial insects. A lot of work has been done to give us this training.”


Wudinesh is one of a group of farmers taking part in an ambitious project by Pesticide Action Nexus Ethiopia to train small-scale cotton growers to produce cotton without the use of  pesticides. Kicking off in 2013, the project started with 90 farmers; today, it reaches thousands. And on Boxing Day last year, 200 of them became the first ever in their country to receive organic certification.


To an ethical, ecologically concerned world, cotton is a bugbear: it’s ubiquitous - according to the Textile Exchange report Preferred Fibres, 22% of all the clothes we wear and the textiles we use come from cotton - but less than 1 per cent grown organically. In India and Pakistan, in the fields of African smallholders, growing cotton with pesticides is having an impact - on land, on lives and on livelihoods.


The price of cotton is sky high and the world’s poorest are paying the price.


Cotton is a fussy and fragile crop. Resource, labour, and energy intensive, it is vulnerable to severe weather and irresistible to pests such as bollworm. It covers just 2.5 per cent of agricultural land but accounts for around 16 percent of all insecticides and six percent of pesticides used globally.


This is more than any other major crop. And where there’s pesticides, there’s pesticide pollution. Chemicals leach into ecosystems, polluting the land and water, blighting wildlife and playing havoc on the health of smallholders who spray by hand.


According to the UN, an average of about 200,000 people die from the toxic exposure of pesticides per year across the world. Many more suffer from chronic ill health, struggling to till land while fighting the cancers and neurological diseases associated with pesticide use.


In Sub-Saharan Africa, pesticide health costs were $6.2 billion, according to the 2013 UNEP  Report on the Costs of Inaction on the Sound Management of Chemicals (according to the same report, Total Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Health in Africa in 2009 - excluding targed aid for HIV AIDS - was USD4.8 billion).


And pesticides are expensive. A smallholder can spend up to 60 percent of an already meagre annual income on bug spray, often buying it on credit. Just one bad harvest - increasingly common as the climate changes - will tip a family into a vortex of debt.


Debt has been blamed for thousands of farmers who have taken their own lives; in India, nearly 60,000 farmers over the past three decades. Part of the blame for this has been laid at the feet of Bt cotton seeds, which cost significantly more than their conventional counterparts.


Originally developed to resist bollworm by multinational biotech Monsanto (which controls 95 percent of the seed market in India), Bt cotton - a cotton that has been genetically modified by the insertion of genes from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, to combat bollworm - has proved neither as robust nor as versatile as it was promised to be. And the forecast for this year’s crop is dismal.


Last but not least, cotton is plagued by human rights violations. The worst take place within the state-led forced labour systems in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, major exporters of cotton. Thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses are forced to pick cotton or face losing their jobs.


The solution to this catalogue of suffering - as any one of PAN-Ethiopia’s 200 farmers will tell you - is to switch to organic growing.


Funded by TRAID and supported by the Pesticide Action Network UK, (PAN UK) farmers are trained in Integrated Pest Management, reconnecting them to techniques of managing soil and water health, nature-friendly pest management and growing other crops alongside cotton. These are all skills that were lost when the reliance on pesticides took hold. Now, Ethiopia’s 200 organic farmers use natural pesticides made from local ingredients like ground neem seeds to attract ‘good’ insects to their fields - which then devour the pests that threaten their crops.


In a swift kick in the face to the pesticides industry - which spends millions promoting the necessity of their product to future food health - yields have almost doubled amongst the Rift Valley farmers. And their cotton is now selling at almost 77 per cent more, a combination of higher quality and the ability to negotiate a better price as a result of being part of a co-op.


Companion crops, such as shea and cashew, rotated as part of organic practice, offer additional income. And the bees are back - a sure sign of environmental health and vitality, allowing the farmers to keep hives and sell honey.


More and more companies are turning to organic cotton. Rob Drake-Knight is co-founder  of award-winning eco-fashion brand Rapanui, which is producing the clothing and accessories for Lush’s first ever pop up shop, which opens at the brand’s Beak Street studio between Friday 20th April and Friday 4th May 2018.


The shop will sell an exclusive range of gender-neutral clothing and accessories, featuring designs that promote conservation, animal rights, gender equality and much more. “Organic cotton is better for the climate, biodiversity and the health and wellbeing of people who farm it. It leads to higher quality products, ” says Rob. Their organic cotton is grown and processed in Gujarat, India.


Menza MailIe, another farmer from the TRAID/PAN/PAN-Ethiopia success story, stands proudly in front of a lush cotton field. Above him, a scrawled sign reads: “Village Chano Mile. Food Spray Trial. Sowing Date May 19, 2017.


“Farming here has really changed since Integrated Pest Management,” he says, joyfully. “Previously, the damage caused by spraying pesticides was immeasurable. It was damaging my health. PAN-Ethiopia taught us that the maize we grow can be used to create a food spray, which replaces the need for pesticides.


“By spraying this maize food spray on my crops, I have witnessed a substantial change and I feel more healthy. Thanks to the project, farmers have stopped using pesticides. The community used to suffer but now the community is very happy.”



Bel Jacobs is an ethical fashion writer and blogger at


Cotton farming in Ethiopia

Where there’s pesticides, there’s pesticide pollution. Chemicals leach into ecosystems, polluting the land and water, blighting wildlife and playing havoc on the health of smallholders who spray by hand.

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