From seed to shirt: The true origin of that organic cotton tee

Global interest in sustainable raw materials has been accelerating this year and so has the demand for Organic Cotton from India, as brands and retailers become more conscious about the origin and sourcing practices of their cotton supply. However, a tiny yet crucial agricultural input impedes scaling this supply to meet the increasing demand in India and other regions: the seed.

The seed cultivar chosen by organic cotton farmers is key to the farmer’s business case for growing organic cotton, as it significantly impacts productivity and economic gains. In addition, seeds are also key to the sustainable adoption of organic farming practices by farmers and their climate resilience. As organic farming conditions are not artificially buffered using synthetic inputs, we must ensure that farmers can access the right quality and type of seed that fits their local environment and their farming system.

Therefore, the production of an organic cotton tee actually starts by ensuring the availability, accessibility and diversity of quality organic cottonseed for farmers. However, this mission doesn’t come without challenges; here are the main ones:

1.     Despite the growing demand in recent years, organic cotton still only covers 1% of the global cotton production and the sector is very fragmented, which means it lacks the incentives required to boost organic seed development and production, resulting in the scarcity of organic cottonseed for farmers.

2.     The use of GMOs in conventional cotton cultivation is increasing and, in most cases, frameworks are yet to be put in place or strengthened for GM and non-GM seed systems to safely coexist. This can result in accidental GMO contamination at seed level, making it challenging to secure the essential characteristics of the seed required by organic farming regulations, whilst jeopardising the integrity of the broader organic cotton sector.

3.     The diversity of genetic resources necessary to breed for improved and climate-resilient organic cultivars is not always characterised or accessible; hence it cannot be valorised by breeding programmes and farmers.

The Organic Cotton Accelerator is committed to solving these critical issues and we are convinced that collaboration between value chain stakeholders is pivotal to bolstering the resilience of the organic cotton sector. OCA unites technical experts, seed producers, farm groups, and OCA Contributors in action, engaging these groups to share knowledge and which can help us scale the OCA Seed and Innovation Programme. Informed by this multi-stakeholder collaboration in 2020, OCA has developed and launched a global organic cottonseed strategy to accelerate our progress as a sector.

Building from the ground up: The vision and key pillars of the OCA Seed Strategy

We are committed to improving the availability, accessibility and diversity of quality organic seed for farmers. Our Seed Strategy mobilises four strategic pillars to meet our goal of boosting the development, commercial release and production of non-GM / organic cultivars around the world:

  • Capacity building: Capacity building interventions will be essential to support Farm Groups and their farmers in setting up their own cultivar trials and evaluating which cultivar works best for them – a critical success factor to ensuring cultivar adoption by farmers. They will also pave the way to help seed producers develop and produce organic seed, while preventing GMO presence in their seed lots in countries where GM cotton is approved for commercial cultivation.

  • Joint market initiatives: Market incentives must be offered to seed producers so they can sustainably invest in organic seed. In essence, this means organising our seed demand as one united sector.

  • Advocacy: In most key producing countries, we will need to develop an enabling environment where these organic seed activities can thrive, which we can do by advocating to public institutions for the coexistence between non-GM and GM seed systems and the need for organic seed and genetic diversity.

  • Seed knowledge management: We need regular and open communication from one country to the other to make sure that local seed interventions are integrated. This can be facilitated by ensuring that there are clear means for knowledge and best practice to be gathered and shared along the journey.

As this strategy is ambitious, it needs to be built on the stable foundations of long-term partnerships in each key cotton-producing country and globally. In this way, local initiatives can be housed under an overarching global seed strategy that integrates these local efforts and shares their learnings to enable continuous improvement and the clear definition of best practices with the sector.

The success of our seed work to date

OCA has been investing in seed capacity building in India since 2017, and has already achieved the following milestones on the journey to organic seed availability, accessibility and diversity:

  • Through the Seed and Innovation Programme, OCA provides the joint largest investment in cotton cultivars suitable for organic agriculture by supporting the Seeding the Green Future programme. This participatory development of a portfolio of non-GM cultivars tailored for local organic farming conditions valorises diverse indigenous genetic resources by collecting the performance data of 49 different cultivars from over 300 trials in research stations and farmers’ fields throughout 7 Indian states. This information is used to support farmers and farm groups’ seed procurement decisions.
  • OCA supported the development of a Guide on Participatory On-Farm Breeding or Organic Cotton that translates the tools and techniques used under this programme into shared knowledge that benefits the organic cotton sector at large.
  • OCA harmonises and streamlines best practices to secure the foundations of organic seed availability: reliable non-GM seed. By developing OCA’s Non-GM Cottonseed Production Guidelines with sector experts and seed producers, we want to help seed producers monitor and prevent GMO presence in different contexts and countries all over the world, from early breeding stages up to the final production, processing and packaging of planting seed. These guidelines are now available upon request to non-GM cottonseed producers.
  • OCA is currently strengthening the on-the- ground implementation of non-GM cottonseed production best practices by partnering with the seed producers that supply seeds to our Indian Farm Programme partners under the Non-GM Seed Assurance programme.
  • The non-GMO integrity of organic cotton is also diagnosed from the seed level onwards under OCA’s Farm Programme, where farmers’ access to seed is facilitated by our Implementing Partners.

Join our OCA Seed Network

We hosted several participatory working groups and events last year which considerably enriched OCA’s Seed Programme pipeline and we are working hard to implement their suggestions with our partners.

A suggestion from the working group has already resulted in our development of a series of online capacity building modules for India as part of our Seed Knowledge Platform, focusing on cultivar testing and the prevention of GMO presence at farm level.

We are also actively following through on the request to set up a cultivar information and feedback system that will allow our community to jointly gather and exchange information about the availability and performance of cultivars available to the organic cotton sector.

This is just the start for us; we need more long-term partners to join our seed journey, participate in our Seed and Innovation Programme and help us accelerate organic cotton supply in unison as a sector.

If you are inspired by this work and would like to stay connected and join our existing network, please email Mathilde Tournebize.