Organic Cotton in India - Benefits and Challenges

Excerpt: Brands have been high on consumption of organic cotton and according to projections by trade experts; the sector may face a global shortfall of up to 50% by 2015

Sumit Gupta Representative in India, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

COTTON is the most used textile fibre in the world, incorporated into all types of textile, apparel, and home furnishing end uses including nonwoven, knit and woven products.

But unfortunately, cotton is also the most toxic crop in the world, contributing heavily to the world pesticides and insecticides consumption. Furthermore, it is estimated that only 25% of pesticides sprayed from a crop duster actually hit the crop, while the rest mix with surrounding soil and water. Four of the top pesticides used on cotton are classified as cancer causing chemicals (cyanide, dicofol, naled, and propargite). Besides, according to a 1997 study by the International Labour Organisation, 14% of all occupational injuries in the agricultural sector and 10% of all fatal injuries can be attributed to pesticides.

On the contrary, Organic Cotton is grown using methods and materials that have low impact on the environment. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, eliminate the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and build a biologically diverse ecosystem.

The organic cotton products, which are processed and packaged using the sustainable and recycled process route, are even more popular.

Organic Cotton Production & Cultivation

Organic cotton production does not simply mean replacing synthetic fertilisers and pesticides with organic ones. Organic cultivation methods are based more on knowledge of agronomic processes than input-based conventional production.The systemic approach aims to establish a diverse and balanced farming ecosystem, which ideally includes all types of crops and farm activities.

Some major highlights of the Organic Cotton are: GMO: Use of genetically modified seeds and inputs is strictly prohibited. Chemistry: Synthetic agrichemicals are banned. Absence of harmful chemicals reduces the risk of harm to biodiversity.

Feedstock Description

Organic agricultural practices may vary from country to country. But, it mainly relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and nutrient cycles, and systems adapted to local conditions rather than the use of (prohibited) inputs with adverse effects. Farmers are taught to apply scientific approach using household waste, cattle waste, twigs, herbs, rock phosphate, de-oiled cakes, and biodynamic preparations to convert it to natural organic manure.


Agro-ecosystems are self-stabilizing with the help of crop rotation, mixed cropping systems, choice of adapted varieties, and application of organic fertilizers and manures. Pest outbreaks are minimised to some degree by the ecological balance maintained by the organic system or through the use of trap crops. Further, native plants are often used for farm borders, preserving populations of local species.

This results in increased biodiversity, soil fertility and, in some cases, habitat restoration. In addition, as genetically modified organisms are banned, continuation of indigenous species is more likely.

Land-Use Intensity

Fibre yield for both conventional and organic production depends on numerous agrological conditions like soil fertility, water availability, irrigation techniques, prevalence of pests, as well as cultivation practices. Although yield may drop at the beginning of the conversion period to organic, equal yield can be attained within a few years of organic practices, when organic matter is built-up in the soil and sustained over long periods of time.

Water Intensity

Organic cotton has a lower water footprint than conventional cotton. This was published in a study in 'The Water Footprint Assessment Manual: Setting the global standard' in 2011. It was conducted by the Water Footprint Network to compare pollution levels from organic and non- organic cotton farming. The grey water footprint of non- organic farms was 98% higher than the organic farms' grey water footprint. The strength of their findings led the researchers to conclude that "the results clearly favour a wider implementation of organic agriculture."

Additionally, organic agriculture produces soils with high levels of organic matter, which can retain moisture by up to 50%; thereby reducing the demand on water resources and helping the crop cope in dry conditions. Water quality is maintained by eradication of synthetic chemicals, which are known to contaminate or cause salinisation of both surface and ground water. Experts also suggest that drip irrigation should be favoured since it is more efficient than most other irrigation techniques.


The organic production system strives to minimize external inputs and to make use of farm's own resources (e.g. animal and green manures, biomass, organic fertilizers, and botanical preparations for pest control) thus preventing toxic exposure to humans and bioaccumulation in the environment.

Energy Use

The energy use in organic cotton is about 40% lower than that in conventional farming, hence making it more sustainable. Manufacturing synthetic agrichemicals consumes huge amounts of energy. Hence, eradication of these synthetic inputs reduces the total energy consumption in organic cotton farming. In some cases, irrigation systems as well as lower levels of mechanization also contribute to reduction of energy use.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs)

(GHGs) of organic cotton are about 60% lower than conventional cotton. Since mineral fertilisers are not used, emission of the GHG N2O from soils is minimized, which is the most important source of direct GHG emission from agriculture. In addition, organic agriculture increases soil organic matter, hence improves soil structure and reduces CO2 emissions caused by erosion.


Waste is similar to conventional cotton waste. In both cases it is minimal as by-products are used for other applications (animal feed, straw, oil, etc) or mulched into the fields. However, in case of organic cotton, cotton seed oil obtained from seedwaste in ginning units is used in organic food products.

Ethical/Social Characteristics

The legal standards for organic farming don't have social criteria. But ethics are core to the Principles of Organic Agriculture set by IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) including the principle of health and of fairness. Many organic cotton producer groups around the world have a social agenda as well as an ecological one.

However, there are many social benefits embedded in the organic production system itself including improved health and safety for the farmers, better financial stability etc.

Textile Processing

GOTS is the leading processing standard for processing of organic fibres, which includes limit values for chemical residues as well as environment and social criteria. If an organic cotton textile is certified to GOTS, it would be free from harmful chemicals at all processing steps.

In absence of uniform and popular legal standard for organic textiles, GOTS is highly popular with brands, industry, retailers and consumers. The US government endorsed GOTS in May 2011 as the preferred standard for organic textiles.


Organic cotton is currently grown in 18 countries. India is the largest producer and exporter of organic cotton in the world. Other leading countries are Turkey, China, Tanzania and the USA. Countries in West Africa, Latin America and the Middle East also have well-established organic cotton producer groups.

Brands have been high on consumption of organic cotton and according to projections by trade experts; the sector may face a global shortfall of up to 50% by 2015. After holistic discussions in Organic Cotton Roundtable in Indore (March 2014), action has been initiated by the stakeholders to prevent such a situation. Efforts are being made to increase the supply and bridge this gap in time.


Organic cotton may fetch 10-50% premium, depending upon market conditions. The price of organic textiles includes investments made by farmers and processors, who recognise the importance of protecting their environment. These investments include inputs costs for agricultural labour, approved organic inputs, certification etc. The benefits of this premium are used in maintaining soil fertility, preserving biodiversity, conserving water resources and using renewable resources. Return on investment is felt by people and the environment, in present and in the future.

Exports from India

As per data available on APEDA website, in 2012-13, India exported 4,985 MT organic textiles. The export value of organic textiles was 160 mn USD. The organic agri export sector registered 4.38% growth over the previous year. Organic products are exported to EU, US, Switzerland, Canada, South East Asian countries and South Africa.


Farms need to complete a three-year conversion period to change their production system from conventional to organic. If cotton is to be sold as organic, it requires a third-party certification to a recognised standard from independent, accredited certification agencies.

  • Legal Organic Farm Standards: EEC Organic Regulation 834/2007 in EU, USDA NOP in the USA, NPOP in India, and JAS in Japan
  • Private Processing Standard: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
  • Private Chain of Custody Standard: Organic Content Standard (OCS)

Some important points to note while buying organic cotton products:

  • Certification proof- Label and Certificate Number
  • Cross-check certificate number and validity on standard's website or with Certification Body.
  • Transaction Certificates (TCs) are mandatory as per GOTS Version 4.0. TC should have your company name and address as the buyer
  • Percentage of organic content in the product
  • Origin of the organic cotton crop
Supplier Information


Need for Improvements/ Challenges:
  • Training farmers about better agriculture practices
  • Availability of GMO free seeds
  • Research & development in GMO free seeds
  • Enhancing integrity at both farm and processing levels
  • Improving efficiencies and reduction of waste in organic cotton supply chains
  • Better market linkages and committed supply chains
  • Transparency and Traceability (Transaction Certificates (TCs) can play a vital role here)
  • Use of Certification and labelling


  • Briefing Paper, Have you Cottoned on Yet?

  • Parsi Bob, Organic Cotton: The Next Happening Thing

  • 'Time for Action' Report from the CottonConnect Organic Cotton Roundtable, 19-20 March 2014, Indore


  • Material snapshot-Organic cotton

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