It is a scenario, however, that many industry specialists believe to be changing and that South Africa’s fears of adopting organic methodologies are, perhaps, not as real as made out.
Organic cotton is, quite simply, cotton that has been grown using natural seed, without the use of pesticides or herbicides and, usually, handpicked to avoid any contaminants from mechanised pickers.
South Africa’s lack of organic action appears to lie somewhere between an in-built fear among farmers to tread where no one has stepped before and pure economics.
According to Thabo Tshabalala, National Education Secretary of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union, small-scale cotton farmers are too nervous to move from their chemically-intensive conventional methods.
“It is their only form of income, and they do not want to take any risks,” says Tshabalala, adding that another barrier to entry is the limited information offered to small-scale farmers about organic techniques. On the large-scale commercial front, the reasons appear to be more clear-cut. It is all about money. There is currently no local demand for organic cotton from consumers, retailers or spinners and, as a result, farmers are not prepared to grow it. In fact, the cost-factor is forcing farmers to increasingly follow the genetically modified (GM) route. Cotton-SA (the representative organisation for the local industry) claims that 70% of South Africa’s cotton is now grown with GM seeds. This, they claim, is due to decreased costs arising from reduced pesticide use and lower maintenance costs.
If there was a market for organic products, they would follow it, says Willem van der Walt, a commercial farmer from the Springbok Flats, north of Pretoria. “There would, however, have to be long-term market guarantees,” he adds hastily.
Yet, how real are these reasons when held up to scrutiny? The overriding consensus appears to be that they are real for the time being, but that the times are changing.
Tshabalala is right about small-scale farmer fears, but these are very similar to fears found among farmers in Turkey before many of them converted to organic methods and now account for the world’s largest organic cotton production – despite, as in South Africa, there being no local Turkish market.
According to chairperson of the Turkish Association for Organic Agriculture, Professor Uygun Aksoy, farmers were reluctant to turn their land over to organic methods (requiring fields to lie fallow for three years without any chemical additives), and anticipated drops in yield once they had adopted organic procedures.
The drop in yields did occur, says Aksoy (between 15% and 20% for the first two years, after which they stabilised), but the increase in price of 20% to 25 %, due to the organic premium, more than compensated for this.
Extensive marketing of Turkey’s organic cotton industry and secure contracts with European organic textile markets was the key, Aksoy believes, in Turkey’s new-found domination of organic production.
Could the same be attained in South Africa? If Danish textile consultant Klaus Sall is to be believed, there is certainly a growing and significant international market. Talking at a workshop on organic cotton held by the World Cotton Congress in Cape Town earlier this month, international demand is growing (by more than 22% a year in the US between 1995 and 2000) and is being driven by manufacturers in the US and Europe who are increasing their output of organic materials and incorporating natural cotton into ‘environment-friendly’ blends.
Lifestyle clothing company Nike launched its first complete ‘organic’ range of 100% organic cotton products in 2002. Its goal is for all its products to contain at least 5% by 2010 and it has gone as far as initiating an organic cotton exchange aimed at stimulating the industry and promoting its use among all manufacturers. Other companies within the organic fold include LL Bean, Patagonia and Marks & Spencer.
It will therefore be necessary for South Africa to gain access to those markets but probably equally necessary for it to develop its own local market and demand for organic cotton. This might, initially, be a tough nut to crack, but not impossible. A project aimed at introducing cleaner production practices in the local textile industry has undertaken a feasibility study on organic cotton production in South Africa. Coordinator of the project Karen Lundbo, believes that a growing demand will be realised in the near future.
“Our dealings with certain retailers indicate their willingness to adopt organic. They will obviously be following consumer demand in this,” she says. Market demand will ultimately come from consumers who, according to all involved, still need to be educated and informed of the benefits of organic cotton. Again, Lundbo remains optimistic. “If one looks at the outcry in certain circles over organic versus GM foods, and retailers’ response to those, then the same could happen for cotton with proper awareness,” says Lundbo.