The global sustainable cotton situation


The global sustainable cotton situation

On the basis of the sevenths “Farm & Fibre Report 2011-12” (112 pages, download by using the link at the end of this feature) of TextileExchange, the authors were Liesl Turscott, Hanna Denes, Prabha Nagarajan, Silvère Tovignan, Alfonso Lizarraga and Alice dos Santos, edited by Heidi McCloskey and Terry Hyde, we do let you have an insight on the latest developments

TextileExchange (TE), a non-profit organisation, dedicated to accelerate sustainable practices in the textile industry, reports that the organic cotton production dropped 8 % in the season 2011-12 against 2010-11, then it dropped a staggering 37 %. On the other hand, half of the organic cotton growing countries reported increased production. TE experts come to the conclusion that the organic cotton market is beginning to stabilise after a wild ride of extreme growths from 2006-10 and the mentioned steep drop in 2011. It has to be stated that the total organic cotton land area has remained fairly stable with only a 2.4 % decrease in 2012. This is attributable to an increased effort by brands to study their supply chains and seek out the most updated and vetted sourcing data. More than 60 % of organisations reported plans to increase their use of organic cotton in the next three years to come, which adds to the market stabilisation.

Of course, there are differences in the specific regions of production. Syria, the biggest producer in 2012, has not been reporting new figures (estimates) because of the civil unrest, there are currently no fibre exports.

The USA is facing a serious draught problem. 90 % of US grown organic cotton derives from the State of Texas, which saw 2012 a devastating drought, hurting all US cotton growers. Droughts in Latin America (Paraguay and Brazil) were also damaging to these productions. According to Liesl Truscott, Farm Engagement Director for TE, stated at the launch of the report: “Looking ahead, we are hopeful that organic cotton production will remain fairly stable. The situation in India is still fragile – access to good quality non-GMO seed is critical and better investment schemes are needed. For the time being, it is not predictable whether Syria will make a recovery next year and export fibre again. Also the uncertainty of rainfall at the right time in the USA and Latin America will play a significant role in determining growth”.

TE surveyed 30 organic cotton producer groups, representing 136000 farmers in 16 countries and a special separate report on practices and impacts will be published soon. TE is at an early stage of collecting Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) data and hopes to publish the results later in the ongoing year. TE has also initiated Collaborative Learning Series (six webinars led by topic experts). In addition TE engages 20 sustainability leaders, learning from their successes with organic cotton, their challenges and finally complying their advice in an industry led good business guide with the aim that this approach will contribute to a better understanding of good business models, and provide a pragmatic support for the industry on ways to build more sustainable value chains.

The key figures impacting the organic cotton year in 2011-12 can be had from Table 1:


The global situation

When comparing the 2011-12 top organic cotton producing countries against the 2010-11 ranking, we note that India still ranks first, but Turkey replaces Syria, China holds unchanged slot number three, then follows Tanzania (Turkey in 2010-11), USA (as before), Mali (Tanzania), Peru (Egypt), Uganda (Mali), Egypt (Kyrgyzstan, Burkina Faso (Peru), the latter ranked the same in the seaons of 2007-08 and 2008-09. Details can be had from Table 2 below.


The world’s organic fibres countries can be had from Table 3:


Regional and countries development

Looking at the global profile of the organic cotton sector, we note that Africa has nine producer groups with 25584 growers and thereof 6625 are women. China has five groups of producers with 1993 farmers, thereof 952 women. Europe/Middle East and North Africa and Central Asia have 25 producer groups with 1273 growers and thereof 261 women. Latin America counts 13 groups with 1186 farmers, thereof 219 women. South Asia (India) names 100 producer groups with 184029 farmers, the number of women is unknown. The USA has six producer groups and 40 farmers, however the number of women is unknown. Worldwide there are 158 producers groups with 214105 growers. 

The global regional organic cotton production details in 2011-132 can be had from Table 4:


The forecast for the regional organic cotton fibre production is contained in Table 5:


Some highlights on Africa

Six countries produce organic cotton, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sénégal in West Africa, and Tanzania and Uganda in East Africa. Africa grows mainly medium and short staple fibre, plus a small amount of long staple. In 2011-12 Africa experienced a strong growth of 103 percent, expanding production from 4400 metric t to 8922 metric t. All countries increased production, but none more dramatically than Tanzania (+ 153 %), partly due to favourable rain showers, and the result were 6891 metric t (2723 metric t), thus over three quarters of Africa’s organic cotton. The country became the fourth biggest producer worldwide, enjoying a share of five percent of the world’s production.

Strong growth of 47 % stem from Burkina Faso and 43 % from Benin. Both planted enthusiastically in response to the good market price for cotton in the year before.

Only Burkina Faso has introduced GMO (Bt) cotton, although there is a concern about contamination amongst neighbouring countries, particularly when gins are shared cross-borders. There is a considerable pressure on other African countries, particularly on Tanzania and Uganda to introduce GMO cotton.

In West Africa Benin reports two producer groups with 1590 farmers, thereof 798 are women (share 50 %), Burkina Faso has one producer group with 2688 farmers, thereof 753 women (28 %). Mali has also one producer group with 9931 growers, thereof 3080 are women (31 %), and Senegal names also one producer group with 192 farmers, thereof 79 women (41 %). The total of West Africa results in five producer groups with 14401 farmers and thereof 4710 women (33 %).

 In South and East Africa the picture is as follows: Tanzania reports three producer groups with 7002 farmers, thereof 452 women (6 %) and Uganda has a sole producer group with 4181 farmer, thereof 1463 women (35 %). South and East Africa’s has four production groups in total with 11183 farmers, thereof 1915 women (17 %).  Africa’s total:  nine production groups with 25584 growers, thereof 6625 are women (26 %).

Table 6 reveals the cotton production profile country wise


The position of China

China grows medium and long fibre almost exclusively in the Xinjiang province, it is also China’s dedicated non -GMO zone. Approximately 60 % of China’s organic cotton is grown in Hefeng, Xinjiang. The majority of organic cotton farmers are well organised, with strong certification systems.

Organic fibre production fell 35 % in 2011-12, or from 12385 to 8106 metric t. The causes: lack of investment in small scale family farming, weak market demand and subsidised conventional cotton production, and the challenge of accessing non-GMO cotton seeds.

Hefeng has 800 farmers, thereof 480 are women (60 %), Kashi counts 80 farmers, thereof 24 women (30 %), Kuitun reports 300 farmers, thereof 30 women (10 %) and Tacheng has 813 farmers, thereof 418 women (51 %), thus resulting in a total of 1993 farmers, thereof 952 women (48 %).

Table 7 gives more details on China’s organic cotton and fibre production.


In China there are the following challenges for the production of organic cotton. It is difficult finding non-GMO cotton seed. There are often higher planting costs 20 % as compared to conventional cotton, and no guaranteed profit payback, especially under current Chinese policies for building a cotton reserve certification costs for single farmers with limited financial capabilities. There is also a lack of knowledge and support to implement a holistic approach and bio-diversity principles in farm production. Farmers are very sensitive to financial and environmental risks of mono agriculture, but it is slowly changing.

What’s on in Europe, Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia?

The EMENA & CA region includes 13 cotton producer countries, but represents a rather small part of the global production.  In 2011-12 three countries of the EU, namely Greece, Spain and Bulgaria, were producing cotton representing 1.3 % of the global production.

North Africa suffered a social-economic crisis in 2011-12 with the 2011 Arab Spring. The four cotton producer countries are Turkey (share globally 2.8 %), Syria (0.7 %), Egypt (0.6 %) and Israel (0.1 %), plus Tunisia and Morocco with a minuscule production share.

The bigger producer countries of the region are located in Central Asia, namely Uzbekistan (global share 3.4 %), Turkmenistan (0.5 %), Tajikistan (0.4 %), Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan (0.1 %).

The organic cotton producing countries in 2011-12 were Egypt, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Turkey, for the latter, Kyrgyzstan has been in the past an attractive source of imports, but is no longer a key source of organic cotton imports due to its increased domestic market prices. Due to the much protected GMO-free status of Turkey, the occasional imports from India are decreasing due to the percieived risk of GMO contamination. Before political unrest and civil war Syria was over the past two years able to export organic cotton to Turkish companies, but these are in drastic decrease now.

Swiss HELVETAS Inter-cooperation initiated an organic cooperative in Kyrgyzstan that is flourishing and producing 156 metric t. Farmers there invest in a diverse cropping system, with organic cotton amount other organic food to market.  

HELVETAS recently initiated an organic cooperative “Bio Kishovarz” in Tajikistan and currently produces 16 metric t of certified organic fibre and 220 metric t in conversion. For 2012-13, the cooperative is expecting 100 metric t organic and a further 800 metric t in conversion. Tajikistan is able to grow superb extra long fibre (up to 40 mm) and with the right market support is set to explore this new business opportunity.

Organic cotton production in Egypt dropped in 2011-12 from 907 metric t to 420 metric t. “Naturextex”, one of the SEKEM groups of companies, remains the business partner of choice for the bio-dynamic/organic cotton farmers.

Israel remains a small producer of organic cotton, with four to five farmers producing approximately 70 metric t of organic Extra Long Staple fibre on about 55 ha of land.

Syria reached in the past 20000 metric t of fibre, but due to the political situation there are – as mentioned before, no figures available for 2011-12.

All cotton farmers in Turkey, including organic cotton, planted with renewed vigour in 2011-12 on the strength of the previous season market price. Higher acreage resulted in a market 64 % increase, which took Turkey from 9613 metric t to 15802 metric t, thus it placed Turkey in the second rank of global production. The Aegean region produces high quality Izmir cotton with long staple, while the South East Anatolian region grows a shorter fibre, but greater quantities, it accounts now for 65 to 70 % of Turkey’s organic cotton production.

Aegan cotton is superior to SEA cotton in terms of colour, fibre strength, and its capacity to retain colour. This difference in quality is reflected in the price as an additional 750 Turkish Lira/metric t (USD 408/metric t) for Aegean cotton, compared to SEA cotton. Cotton from the Bergama and the Tire regions (Aegan region) with its rare white colour ,and fibre strength is regarded as the world’s highest quality cotton, second only to Egyptian (Alexandria) cotton. For combed, ring spun cotton Aegan is ideal, whereas SEA (Sanhufa, Mardin Diyarbakir) is suitable for open end spinning.

Table 8 gives more insight into this regions organic cotton production.


The focus on Latin America

Latin America is an important region for cotton and textiles, with Brazil standing out as one of the world’s biggest cotton producer and fifth largest textile manufacturer. Also important to the region are Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru. Most countries produce cotton from genetically modified varieties with the exception of Nicaragua and Peru. It is estimated that Latin America has 939107 ha of genetically modified cotton and produced around 383297 metric t of fibre.

Brazil has five producer organic cotton groups – producing mostly for the domestic market – with 371 farmers, thereof two women (share 0.54 %), whereas Nicaragua has one producer group with 41 farmers, thereof six women (14.63 %), Paraguay reports two producer groups with 600 farmers, thereof 180 women (30 %). Peru names five producer groups with 174 farmers, thereof 31 women (17.82 %), all add to a total of 13 producer groups with 1186 farmers, thereof 219 females. In the Brazil (in-conversion) there is one producer group with four farmers, thereof one woman and in Paraguay there is also a sole producer group with 62 farmers, thereof 13 women.

The details to the Latin America organic cotton production can be seen in Table 9:


As stated before, Latin American organic cotton producers had to face unfavourable weather, as well as challenging market conditions. Latin America exports virtually no organic fibre, since most of the fibre is used by local companies. In Latin America the textile chain is well established within the domestic scene; including producers, ginners, spinners, knitters, sewers, and marketers of the final product. However the value chain is still subject to changes in the international market (price of cotton) and fashion, as well as the economic characteristics of each country, bilateral and multilateral treaties, and the importation of fibre or products, for instance from India or China.

Peruvian organic cotton (including the extra long staple Pima) dropped 23 % in the reporting season. Likewise also Paraguay experienced a fall of 33 %. Production in Peru continues to decline, mainly due to imported subsidised cotton. In 2010-11 growing season cotton imports increased from 32000 to 66000 metric t, while production fell from 79000 to 44000 metric t. In 20’12 the Textile Committee Chairman of SNI National Society of Industries announced that the domestic industry could buy 100 % of the cotton produced in Peru, as a measure to support the revival of Peruvian cotton. But late in 2012 the Ministry of Agriculture announced that the producers of Piura could export their specialised Pima Cotton again to the international market. Actually it is estimated that Peru’s cotton planting will be reduced by 34 % compared to last season, equating to about 30000 ha, mostly because of subsidy reductions announced by the Ministry of Agriculture. In turn the state will promote the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of the season 2012-13 through the creation of the Ministerial Resolution in the cotton crop. Strategic alliances are increasingly important, for example Arasy in Paraguay has established a series of strategic alliances to address cotton production and become more competitive in 2013.

In Paraguay the textile company Aratex Organic works with local farmers and consumes the majority of organic cotton produced. This company has its own marketing channels, mainly oriented to the European market.


Argentina produces organic textiles with imported cotton, mainly for the domestic market. There are relatively new players in organic cotton. Among the new initiatives, the most relevant is driven by Fair Trade organisation Otro Mercado del Sur.

The organic Fair Trade farmer networks located in the semi-arid region of Brazil tragically suffered another drought, affecting production severely and resulting in a 58 % drop.

The Nicaraguan production of organic cotton expanded by an astounding 190 %, or from 42 metric t of fibre to 122 metric t. CAPROEXNIC, the export cooperative manages the sale of organic cotton lint for Aprenic, the local organisation of producers.

Secondary cash export crops such as organic sesame helped to boost farmers in come in both Paraguay and Nicaragua.  Paraguay joined up with other countries in the region to use GMO seeds, being important to organic cotton growers. Alongside the local NGOs, farmers are working hard to protect their investments against the possible effects on organic cotton production.

In Mexico there are efforts to start a chain of organic cotton companies. Mexico is also importing for domestic confection of organic cotton apparel destined for export.

The situation in India (South Asia)

India remains the biggest producer of cotton (in the last five years), with 34 % of global acreage. India produced in 2011-12 103004 metric t of organic cotton (an increase of one percent), or 75 % of the global production. Due to the rapid growth of BT cotton in India, and the scarcity of alternative non-Bt seeds, the risk of GMO contamination continues to burden organic farmers and places pressure on the chain to maintain integrity. Stakeholders are working diligently to improve this situation.

India’s cotton growing are is classified into three zones: Northern Zone comprising Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, its Central Zone, entailing Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, and is Southern Zone, comprising Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to which Odisha has recently be added.

The three major zones vary from each other with respect to soil, irrigation, topography and their preference for cotton types. The North Zone has alluvial soils, access to irrigation on over 90 % of acreage, it prefers growing G. Hirsutum and G.Arboruem. The Central Zone has black soil, only about 10 -15 % irrigation, and grows G.Hirsutum, G. Arboruem and G. Hebaceum and Intra Hirsutum. The South Zone has both sandy and red soil, access to irrigation on over 30 % and grows all four types of cotton, including Intra Hirsutum Hybrids. These ten states grow most of India’s cotton. The Central zone is the largest cotton grower, accounting for almost 65 percent of India’s cotton area. The bulk of organic cotton growing is done in the two states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Andhra Pradesh numbers three organic cotton producer groups with 5500 farmers (share in comparison to all farmers in the state) 3 %, Gujarat counts 10 producer groups with 18350 farmers (10 %), Haryana has two producer groups with 1820 growers (1 %), Karnataka reports four producer groups with 1840 farmers (1 %), Madhya Pradesh numbers 44 producer groups and 90500 farmers (49 %), Maharashtra  counts 21 producer groups with 38000 farmers (21 %), Odisha has nine producer groups with 16500 farmers (9 %), Rajasthan names three producer groups with 3500 farmers (2 %) and Tamil Nadu names four producer groups with 8019 farmers (4 %).

More insight into India’s organic cotton production is presented in Table 10:


At the lower end of the price spectrum, Indian organic cotton prices have always come beyond those of other countries, but never to the same extent as witnessed this year. The situation can be considerably different for farmers integrated into committed supply chains, or working with longer term trade relationships. For these growers, despite the seed challenges, organic cotton agriculture continues to hold strong attraction is delivering significant livelihood benefits to farmers.

It has to be added, that there is no data for Pakistan and it is possible that organic cotton production has ceased for the time being.

The position of the United States

Over 90 % of organic cotton production in the USA is located in Texas, and grown mostly on rain fed land. As we mentioned before, Texan farmers suffered from severe drought in 2011, among others in the Southwest. Despite the drought and the fall of 45 % in production, the USA held its ranking as fifth biggest global organic cotton producer.

Alabama, Arizona, California, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas count six organic cotton groups with 40 farmers and a planted area of 6495 ha and a cotton production of 4772 metric t and a fibre production  of 1580 metric tons resulting in 7252 bales of cotton fibre.


Other parts of the TE report take a closer look at Fair Trade cotton, details on cotton sustainability initiatives, organisations advancing cotton sustainability, and in appendices, we find a breakdown of major producing countries: research and reporting methodology and assumptions, as well as definitions and glossary. The report is really a reliable source of data and information on organic cotton.–fiber-report

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