Two decades ago, Damera Yakamma’s husband, a cotton farmer in a southern Indian village, committed suicide by consuming pesticide because of his mounting debts, leaving his widow in charge of their two acres of land.
After that, the mother of four - then in her mid-twenties - decided she did not want any more chemicals entering her home.
With the help of a non-profit in Telangana state’s Warangal district, Yakamma and some other local farmers grew their first organic cotton crop in 2005 using natural manure and bio-pesticides.
They benefited from lower costs, better health and soil, and premium market prices as buyers sought their higher-quality cotton.
But they lost their organic certification in 2015 after a genetically modified cotton variety known as BT, promising higher yields and pest resistance, spread so widely across India that they could no longer buy indigenous seeds from dealers.
Still the farmers stuck with natural growing methods to produce cotton sustainably, in a bid to meet growing demand from fashion brands that are increasingly adopting targets to cut climate-heating emissions in their value chains.
According to the Confederation of British Industry, in 2020 sustainable cotton accounted for nearly 20 per cent of the global cotton supply. Demand is rising by 20 per cent per year, with many leading garment manufacturers pledging to use only sustainable cotton by 2025 in response to consumer concerns over the environment.
About six million farmers in India cultivate cotton on 12 million hectares, producing a quarter of the world’s cotton, making it a key market for scaling up sustainable production.
In response, global initiatives that work with the fashion industry are promoting sustainable cultivation among Indian farmers, including reducing the use of chemicals and using natural resources like water more judiciously.
Such organised efforts are still limited in scale, however, meaning that farmers like Yakamma - who are trying to grow sustainable cotton independently while also adapting to climate change - are struggling to get a better price in the market.
As the movement for greener, ethical cotton production gains a foothold in India, experts are calling for farmers to receive a bigger share of the benefits, as well as more support from government and brands to cope with rising climate stress.
Aggressive pesticide marketing
Even after the organic cotton farmers of Yakamma’s village had to start sowing BT seeds - now planted on 95 per cent of India’s cotton fields - Yakamma and about 20 others continued to use natural cultivation methods, keeping their costs about a third lower as they avoided expensive chemical pesticides.
Nonetheless, they cannot sell their cotton for premium prices without a certificate to prove it is sustainable, they said, adding that they struggle to fetch even the minimum price set by the Indian government under pressure from market traders.
“When we take our crop to the market, it is like taking a dead body to the morgue,” said Damera Sadanandam, a cotton farmer from the village.
Traders exploit farmers’ urgency to sell and pay 25-30 per cent less than the government-fixed price of 6,000 rupees (US$72) per quintal, saying the cotton is too moist and of inferior quality, he said.
To help such farmers, some international sustainable cotton organisations - including Better Cotton Initiative, Fairtrade and Organic Cotton Accelerator - have established independent quality standards and licensing models to secure better prices.
Besides working with farmers to advance sustainable practices, the initiatives are pushing to make cotton processing ethical and reduce health risks, as well as connecting producers with big brands looking to source greener cotton.
But they face several challenges in scaling up this work, with proliferation of chemical pesticides among the largest.
India’s legal framework on the management of pesticides and its enforcement needs to be strengthened, noted Saleena Pookunju, senior programme manager for Better Cotton in India.
Manufacturers and vendors are flouting the law by aggressively promoting unregistered pesticides among farmers, she said.
And with climate change threatening the livelihoods of millions, many panic and are persuaded to purchase and use farm chemicals, putting them under more financial strain, she explained.
Once they reach their credit limits, most are forced to turn to informal lenders charging annual interest rates of 60-72 per cent, Pookunju said.
Vendors of pesticides also act as money lenders, and coerce farmers to buy their products through agents working on commission, entrapping farmers in a vicious circle of using hazardous chemicals, she added.