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June 22, 2007

The prospects for organic cotton in South Africa

One of the images that the organic cotton movement uses in its publicity material is a photograph of a gaggle of children waving happily from the middle of a field of cotton plants. Not particularly remarkable, until you read the claims made in the print alongside : that conventionally grown cotton accounts for about a quarter of total world usage of insecticides, including a number that are highly toxic to humans.

This is in addition to the herbicides applied to the soil to inhibit weeds. The field where the happy kids are standing is, naturally, organic.

"When you shift to organic you can actually be in your fields," advocate of organic farming Rebecca Calahan Klein said in Cape Town. "When you use chemicals you can't actually be in your fields most of the growing season, it's too toxic."

Klein, who is programme development director of the United States-based non-profit organisation Organic Exchange, is in South Africa to spread her message in the hope that local farmers will also make the change. Her organisation, along with retailer Woolworths, which is already marketing an organic cotton clothing line, are hosting a conference in Cape Town looking at issues that include how to sustain an organically grown cotton industry on the African continent.

Klein said that organic growing involved a very different philosophy to conventional cotton farming. Non-organic farmers used chemicals to defoliate the cotton plant and kill it off as the harvest approached. "When the plant is dying it's like 'Oh I want to reproduce! I want to reproduce!' And it pops open and then you can pick the cotton."

Organic cotton's seed on the other hand was not tampered with through genetic modification, and no synthetic chemicals or fertilisers were used. Instead the plant was nourished by creating a rich and loose soil, she explained.

Klein said that while there were currently no South African farmers growing cotton organically, the potential and necessity for the industry was certainly there. She said that in South Africa there were already a lot of organic farmers growing food. "South Africa could have organic cotton next year if one of the organic farmers growing food says, 'Oh one of the crops I'd like to grow this year would be cotton'." Klein said the small-scale farmers common in South Africa could easily switch to organic cotton because they typically already used little or no chemicals on their farms.

According to proponents of the organic movement, sales of organic cotton worldwide are expected to top $2.5-billion by the end of next year.

South Africa was a prime area for developing an organic cotton industry because its strong manufacturing base would allow a complete chain of production. She also said the region was well positioned for export opportunities.

Klein said that while her organisation did not have any projections for the South African organic cotton market, it hoped it would fit in with the aim of seeing between seven and 10 percent of the world's cotton supply organic in the next 10 to 15 years.

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