Industrial cotton is the world's favourite - and most polluting - fabric fibre.
As David Hecht reports from Senegal,
small farmers have good reason to seek out 'eyes-on' methods
for growing the raw material of denim.
Research by Georges Badiane.
Hands-on sorting of cotton in Mali, West Africa.
PHOTO: BETTY PRESS / PANOS
Every day Dass Sangare collects the urine of his seven cows. ‘It’s not exactly a pleasant job,’ he says, sitting in the shade beside his hut surrounded by one-and-a-half hectares of cotton. ‘They usually go in the morning just before they’re milked. If you don’t get a bucket under them in time you miss most of it.’
Sangare then leaves the urine to ferment for a few days, dilutes it with water and sprays it over his cotton plants. ‘It’s one of the best insecticides there is,’ he says. ‘It’s also a herbicide and fertilizer, and its free.’
Most important, the urine repels whiteflies (bemissia tabacci) which in 1997 were responsible for a 36-per-cent fall in Senegal’s cotton production. Most Senegalese farmers spray their cotton with substances like Politrine N, Tamaron 400CE, Sherpa Monochrotophos, Nivacron and Asodrine. None have worked. ‘If they would just spray cow urine once a week,’ says Sangare, ‘their whiteflies would go away.’
Organic-cotton farmers have had yields of up to 1.8 tonnes per hectare – almost double the national average – with no whiteflies. Helped by a non-governmental organization, Enda-Pronat, more than 500 cotton farmers around the village of Koussanar (in the region of Tambacounda, southeast Senegal) last year stopped using any chemicals to protect their crops. ‘And more want to convert. We just don’t have the support system,’ says Mohamedoun Ag Mohamed Abba, an Enda-Pronat agronomist.
Abba says farmers don’t just stop using chemicals – they have to have a whole new approach. ‘You can’t get around the fact that soils and plants need help,’ he says. ‘The difference is that conventional, chemical methods attempt to transform fields into controlled environments, eliminating everything that does not maximize the growth of one plant. Organic methods, on the other hand, focus on using elements in the environment to promote the natural health of the selected plant, so that it effectively resists insects, weeds and diseases.’
To see a dramatic demonstration of the results of organic methods, farmers just take a short walk down a dirt track leading away from Koussanar. There are two of Abba’s experimental cotton fields next to each other, only one of which is sprayed with cow urine. The plants on one are bright and bushy-green; on the other they are grey and straggly. It is hard to believe they are the same species.
Radhakrishna Rao records an ironic end to a tragic episode in India.
As many as 60,000 small farmers in the region of Andhra Pradesh, southern India, have taken to farming cotton instead of food crops. Some 20 of them have recently committed suicide by eating lethal doses of pesticide.
Most of the farmers are extremely poor. Attracted by cheap loans from pesticides traders and the prospect of a quick buck, they borrowed heavily to raise cotton on small plots of land.
Whitefly, boll weevils and caterpillars multiplied and destroyed their crops, despite the constant application of pesticides. The average yield of cotton fields in Andhra Pradesh fell by more than half in just one year. Now the farmers are in no position to repay the loans or feed their families.
The suicide of Samala Mallaiah in Nagara village grabbed media headlines. He owned one acre of land, leased two more and grew cotton on all three. After making a loss in the first year, he leased yet more land in an attempt to recover. Confronted with falling prices, mounting debts and pest attacks, he committed harakiri. ‘Cotton has given us shattered dreams,’ said one old farmer in Nagara village.
Nearly half the pesticides used in India go into protecting cotton, the most important commercial crop in the country. However, pests have shown increased immunity to a range of pesticides. Last year there were heavy crop losses due to leaf-curl, which is caused by the dreaded whitefly. This nondescript, milky-white fly sucks sap from the cotton leaves, making them curl and dry up. The fly struck first in Pakistan and north-western India. Then it turned south.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the crop losses and destruction in Andhra Padresh arose from the repeated application of excessive amounts of chemicals – a practice actively encouraged by pesticides traders.
Radhakrishna Rao is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.
‘Minerals like iron, potassium and magnesium in urine act as fertilizer, while its acidity kills newly sprouting weeds,’ says Abba. But he admits research is not conclusive on why only the urine repels whiteflies. ‘It seems a hormone in the cow urine is the active ingredient,’ he says. ‘We’re also finding that the urine of female goats and sheep works – and even the urine of women has similar properties.’ Women’s urine has the advantage that it is easier to collect.
The secret of Koussanar’s success is more than just urine. Potions are made from an unlikely array of raw materials – burnt animal bones, wood ash, chilli powder, garlic and the leaves, roots and fruits of dozens of local plants. One of the most remarkable is a plant called neem, which is abundant in much of sub-Saharan Africa and is used extensively by African herbalists to cure everything from malaria to dandruff. Recent experience of neem in the West has confirmed what traditional healers have known for centuries. The farmers in Koussanar use neem to make insect repellent from the leaves and nuts, and fertilizer from the nut shells.
Such techniques were largely replaced in Africa after 1945, when Western chemicals became readily available even to poor peasant farmers. For decades Senegal’s Government marketing board, SODEFITEX, has given chemicals to cash-crop farmers on condition that they sell their produce back to the board. The cost of the chemicals is then deducted from their profits from the harvest, at times leaving them with nothing.
Alternatives to growing cotton with chemicals were all but forgotten in Africa until 1993, says Abba. Now organic-cotton production has also begun in Benin, Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe, with plans for Ghana and Mali as well. Organic cotton still only amounts to 0.08 per cent of all the cotton in the world, but that figure is on the rise, says N’Gone Toure, a co-ordinator at Enda-Pronat: ‘More importantly, a few years ago the experts said it was impossible to avoid artificial inputs. Now many are changing their mind.’
Still, an estimated $7 billion-worth of pesticides – about 25 per cent of all insecticides in the world – are sprayed on cotton every year, with the fastest-growing markets in the least-developed world. According to Ousmane Boye, an official at the pesticide department of Senegal’s ministry for agriculture, some of the chemical insecticides and fertilizers imported into Senegal from Europe and the US last year are restricted or banned in their country of origin. ‘The most dangerous are active ingredients which have monochrotophos and metamidophos,’ he says. Both of these organo-phosphates are known to have serious, long-term effects on human health.
Even chemicals that are available in the West are sometimes hazardous. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 107 active ingredients in pesticides still used in the US are carcinogenic and 14 are known to cause reproductive problems in animals. ‘But they are even more dangerous in Africa, as they are often used improperly,’ says Boye, pointing out that most African farmers are illiterate and cannot read instructions on the bottles. ‘They often overdose because they have no idea what they are dealing with,’ he says. While Africa imports only four per cent of the world’s chemical pesticides and fertilizers, there are more accidents with them here than anywhere else in the world.
Even without accidents, Boye says, poor farmers in developing countries are likely to be affected more by chemical pesticides than farm workers in the West. ‘Peasants mostly live where they spray,’ he says. There are no statistics on Africa, but US farm workers are the occupational group most at risk of chemical-related illness, according to the US Bureau of Statistics. Rarely are their homes in the middle of the fields, as in Africa. ‘Clearly the risks are greater for African farmers,’ he says.
Sangare tells some revealing tales. ‘We would try to escape the fumes by going indoors, but they would still seep in,’ he says. His roof is made of straw and his windows are just openings in the mud walls. ‘The children got skin rashes and breathing problems,’ he adds. Often his domestic animals got sick after a spraying. ‘One time two of my cows started foaming at the mouth and their stomachs bloated up. After two days they were dead.’ Many other people in the area tell of an increase in ‘tuberculosis’, from which some villagers have died. According to Toure, they really died of lung cancer.
Sackcloth and élan
Kate Fletcher explains why there’s more to hemp than a load of old rope – and no, setting fire to it won’t bring a nice surprise.
Hemp’s environmental credentials are indisputable. It grows better in organic systems than in conventional ones. It smothers weeds and controls pests, clearing the land for other crops. It improves the structure of the soil, with strong roots to prevent erosion. If processed in the field, it returns nutrients to the land and purports to ‘clean up’ soil contaminated with heavy metals. It is one of a minority of textile-fibre crops that can be grown in temperate climates. What is more, the fibre is durable. In sixteenth-century England King Henry VIII even passed an Act fining farmers who failed to grow it. So why, given its potential, is so little hemp used today?
There are three main reasons. The first is that the market has been completely overwhelmed by cotton and synthetic fibres. The second is cannabis sativa, the recreational drug derived from hemp, which has made the cultivation of the plant illegal in many parts of the world. However, plant breeders have developed varieties which are low in the psycho-active compound, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and farmers are beginning to grow these varieties under special licence.
The third and main reason is the process of extracting fibre from the plant’s stem, or ‘retting’. In conventional treatments this process uses natural bacteria and fungi, or chemicals which break down the pectins that bind the fibres to the stem. Traditionally this is done in water. It can also be done by simply lying the crop on the ground, or ‘dew retting’, which is preferable from an environmental perspective. But it depends on the right cocktail of heat and moisture and can take anywhere from one to six weeks. The weather’s unpredictability makes this risky – farmers can easily lose their whole crop. Other retting techniques are being developed, but few have been perfected.
In conventional processing the stems are kept parallel throughout harvesting, retting and subsequent cleaning, but the mechanical method tangles the fibre up. The difference is crucial: only by keeping the stems aligned can a fine yarn and high-quality fabric be gained. Short fibres make a coarser, more rigid fabric, which perhaps is the reason why hemp is stereotyped as ‘sackcloth’.
Market image is all-important. Most designers will either not have heard of hemp, or know of its associations with the drug culture, or think its only use is for sacking. If garment producers realize the potential of hemp, and processing techniques are refined, hemp could begin to fulfil its promise as a local, environmentally responsible textile fibre with distinctive élan.
Kate Fletcher is a researcher in textiles/environment/design issues at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London, England.
Yet few Senegalese cotton farmers are even aware of alternatives to chemicals. The chemical industry and officials from the Government rarely encourage them to find out. They use the argument that organic methods are not scientifically proven. Boye, though acknowledging the dangers of chemical pesticides, is not convinced they offer a complete alternative at present. ‘If Senegal is to compete on the global market, we cannot be using local methods that have not been properly researched,’ he says.
Advocates of organic farming admit he has a point. ‘We know organic solutions work,’ says Abba. ‘There just hasn’t been enough research yet to determine exactly what farmers should be using and when they should be using it.’ For every one dollar spent on researching new biological alternatives, $4,000 are spent on a new chemical products, according to the US-based organic-cotton organization, Simple Life.
The biggest problem is dosage. Potency of the raw organic materials varies, depending on conditions. Researchers at the Institute for Agronomic Research in Senegal have found, for example, that the potency of neem changes with climate and soil conditions. The chemical composition of cow urine varies according to the age and diet of the cow. ‘If the mixture is too strong, the acid will kill the plant,’ says Abba. ‘If it’s too weak, it just doesn’t work.’
Some organic solutions pose health risks. Chilli powder is an excellent insect repellent but it causes serious skin and eye inflammations. Spraying urine – particularly human urine – can be unhygienic. Other substances can be deadly. According to Abba, farmers at Koussanar had been extracting a white rubbery liquid from a plant called Darboguel. ‘It kills not only insects but animals and humans. One time, after spraying near a creek, all the fish died and floated to the surface. We no longer recommend that peasants use it,’ he said.
Abba admits his own experiments have sometimes gone wrong. ‘Last year I was trying out different rates of dissolving neem into water and I let the solution ferment. When the farmers sprayed it on their plants, instead of repelling the insects it attracted them. The crop was almost wiped out. I felt terrible.’
But from the failures we learn, says Abba. ‘Sometimes it’s just best to leave the insects be. A cotton field is an insect-eat-insect world. If the plants are naturally healthy they can withstand a lot. You just need an “eyes-on” approach, to catch potential problems early.’
The farmers at Koussanar seem prepared to take the risk. The financial risks of organic methods are actually fewer. ‘Before, when our crops went to market, much of the profits went to the Government,’ says Demba Sy, who turned to organic-cotton farming two years ago. ‘I don’t yet know how much money I will make this year. But, however much it is, it will all be mine.’
The main expense is the spraying equipment they share, and buying the cotton seeds, which cost less than $2 a hectare. Chemical pesticides, on the other hand, average about $20 a hectare and have to be applied at least six times a season – in extreme cases as often as thirty times. ‘Sometimes we had bumper harvests and still made less than $100 for a year’s work,’ says Sy.
An added attraction of organic cotton is that its price is better – 30-per-cent more than conventional cotton. There is increasing demand for it from health-conscious consumers in Europe and the US. Research suggests that conventional cotton retains a residue of chemicals: air-born fibres may cause lung cancer, while physical contact with the residues may increase the chances of skin blemishes and cancer. ‘In Europe, manufacturers of organic-cotton products can’t get enough of it,’ says Jacques Deffour, head of la Cotonnière Cap Vert, Senegal’s main organic-cotton exporter. ‘I think it could become an important foreign-exchange earner for Senegal.’
Currently the US is the largest producer of organic cotton, but small-scale farmers could have an advantage on global markets – overheads are lower because the organic raw materials are freely available all around them.
The farmers do face obstacles in making the conversion. Eliminating all chemicals from a field takes two-to-three years. For the cotton to be certified as organic, a representative from the European-based organization ECOCERT must come out and submit the soil and plants to rigorous testing.
Those who have undergone the conversion say it was worth it. Surveying his land, Sangare cites a Wolof proverb: ‘Ku buge de wekhu’ – which means: ‘How sad it is that people only change when their life depends on it.’ He admits farming is now more difficult. ‘To solve our problems we can no longer just go to the store and buy a bottle of pesticide. But our land is healthier – and so are we.’
David Hecht is based in Dakar, Senegal, where he is a correspondent for National Public Radio in the US, the BBC, Newsweek, Christian Science Monitor, The Economist and New Republic.
Georges Badiane is his research assistant.