Organic cotton is cotton which is produced according to the internationally recognized organic farming standards of the EU regulation 834/2007, of the USA National Organic Program (NOP), the Indian National Program for Organic Production (NPOP) or the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS).
What is organic 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.
The systemic approach aims to establish a diverse and balanced farming ecosystem which 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 production is the careful selection of varieties adapted to local conditions in terms of climate, soil and robustness to pests and diseases.
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 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.
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 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. Some of these are: neem spray, prepared from neem kernels (Azadirachta indica) extract, effective against sucking pests, jassids, bollworms and thrips; pyrethrum, prepared from powdered flower heads or liquid extracts of chrysanthemum, effective against red cotton bug, cutworms, grasshoppers; botanical mixtures, combinations of extracts from different plants such as castor, thorn apple, lantana, custard apple, sweet potato leaves, tomato leaves, ginger, chilly, gliricidia, marigold, etc.
Harvest and post-harvest quality management
Usually, the 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.