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April 02, 2008

Ugandan decline in cotton production due to many factors

by Moses Muwanga*

A number of articles appeared in The New Vision recently highlighting causes of reduced cotton production in Uganda. The drastic drop in production in the 2007-2008 season could not have been a result of switching to organic farming. Rather, it is a culmination of many factors.

Firstly, it is not possible to force farmers into organic production as the articles alleged. The organic companies voluntarily register farmers who are willing to participate, provided they are willing to comply with the International Organic Standards and Certification requirements. If there are any indications that farmers are forced, certification would be denied. It may be possible that new farmers were not adequately prepared, but forcing them did not happen.

On low yields, farmers reportedly complained that they used to harvest 800kg of cotton from six acres when they were farming conventionally, but harvested 380kg this season from the same acreage after converting to organic farming. However, the low yields experienced this year in the north, the main cotton production area, could be attributed to a number of reasons:

Firstly, the germination rate of the seeds was low (40% in some areas), probably due to poor storage or delayed planting. In some places, much of the crop was planted late and due to poor germination of the first planting carried out in May, the second crop planted around July/August to replace the poorly germinated lot lost many balls in November and December due to drought. This effected both the organic and conventional farmers.

Secondly, poor farm management, pre-supposing perhaps the insufficient extension system, also accounts for poor yields. If most of the fields visited by the reporter were not weeded, as indicated in the articles, this has nothing to do with the farmers being organic or conventional. It is poor management by the farmers or ineffective extension system.

It is also worth noting that the apparent low yields by the cotton farmers in Uganda, including conventional farmers, have been partly attributed to the poor farm management practices and lack of deliberate use of inputs. Even the conventional cotton farmers have not been using inputs and there has not been a more elaborate assistance and extension programme to enhance productivity. But the organic certified projects have an elaborate extension system because it is a requirement for certification.

Cotton production in Uganda is fed by rain and being an annual crop, the weather pattern influences the production at farm level. The negative impact of the weather, in addition to other causes explained above, was visible in the 2007-2008 season.

At the global level, there has been a shift in cotton and the apparel industry towards sustainability. The rapid increase in organic cotton production and trade around the world is a direct result of the apparel and home products industries. It is also a result of the personal care industry's 'growing move towards providing products grown in the most sustainable manner possible.

Global conventional cotton production consumes approximately 25% of all insecticides produced globally and more than 10% of all synthetic pesticides produced globally. This has been seen as unsustainable, thus the world consumers' shift to products that are sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The switch to organic by the big retailers and textile industries around major international markets has resulted in a global rapid increase in demand for organic cotton. So the increasing investment in organic cotton in Uganda is based on the global trends. The top 10 countries participating in organic cotton industry include Turkey, India, China, Syria, Peru, the United States, Uganda, Tanzania, Israel and Pakistan. Uganda is number one on the African continent and number seventh globally.

According to the US-based Organic Exchange, as a result of the growing demand for organic cotton products by the large brands and retailers, more manufacturers have entered the market to offer organic cotton yarns, fabrics and finished goods.

The estimated global retailer sales for organic cotton products are projected to grow to over $2.6billion by the end of this year. As the global trends in the cotton industry move towards green and more environment-friendly fibre products, we should position our sector to match the global developments. This calls for increased research into organic pest (including weeds) management and soil fertility, among other initiatives. There is also need to develop technical, financial and business development packages that reflect the specific challenges in the cotton industry.

Over 80% of all fresh pineapples, apple, bananas and passion fruits which are exported from Uganda to Europe are in the organic quality, largely because this is where we have higher competitiveness.

*The writer is the national coordinator of the National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda

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