Among crops, cotton is notorious for the high volumes of hazardous pesticides used to grow it. Pesticide poisoning of smallholder farmers is all too common and indiscriminate use is a major cause of water pollution and biodiversity loss. For years, the accepted wisdom around the world has been that it is uneconomical to grow cotton in any other way. But today farmers in Ethiopia are proving that it is not only possible, but profitable, to grow cotton without pesticides.
I work with smallholder cotton farmers in the Arba Minch area in the south of the country. In the early 2000s they benefited from some training on sustainable agriculture and, despite having no funding, were very keen to continue. Many had suffered from pesticide poisoning themselves or had witnessed the suffering of family or friends. The high cost of pesticides, coupled with dwindling profits, was having an adverse effect on family incomes. They were motivated to find safer and cheaper methods of cotton production.
While Ethiopia has a number of well-established organic coffee producers, there were then no certified organic cotton farmers in the country, and what happened next was only possible because of international support. With funding from the UK fashion reuse charity TRAID and support from Pesticide Action Network UK and the Ethiopian government and local authorities, we established Farmer Field Schools, where farmers could come and develop practical skills in crop husbandry, soil conservation and pest management.
The project began with 90 farmers and we have provided practical training to more than 2,000 to date. The successes we have achieved in Ethiopia have only been possible thanks to the generosity of the UK public. That is why, while it is right that sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers is investigated and uncovered, I hope that the scandals facing Oxfam and Save the Children will not discourage people from supporting the charities that so many projects around the world rely on for support.
Most of the families we work with depend on cotton for income to pay for food, medicine, schooling and other essentials. They are understandably cautious about adopting new approaches, as a failed crop can spell disaster for the family. By first working alongside farmers on test plots, they develop confidence in their skills and experience the pros and cons of new methods first-hand. Close monitoring by our dedicated field agents allows us to measure production costs and yields to determine which techniques work best.
Our farmers are now achieving yields over 100% higher than untrained farmers in the same area and the price obtained per kilo of cotton has increased by 77%. One community I work with is planning a new village store for cotton and milling equipment, where extracts from need seed – a bio-pesticide – will be prepared and sold. Instead of the quick fix of chemicals, these farmers are becoming part of the knowledge production process. In December 200 of them were the first to achieve organic certification.
This has not been easy. It was exhausting walking to each farm, measuring plots, and checking for contamination. We keep individual files on each farmer. Harvested crops are stored and transported with great care.
Worldwide, demand for organic cotton outstrips supply and it is our hope that the big brands will consider sourcing organic cotton from Ethiopia in the future. It is also important that people in the UK and elsewhere understand the benefits of continuing to support the charities that fund such work.
• Tadesse Amera is director of PAN-Ethiopia
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