In a place where population growth is moving incredibly fast, added pressure on farmers in India in the wake of crushing debt and failed crops calls for a new agricultural approach. Genetic modification and organic farming present promising solutions. Young Explorer Andrew Flachs will investigate the effect of both growing strategies by interviewing farmers in Southern India.
I came to India hoping to learn about the connections between a simple choice of clothing and sustainable agriculture happening in the fields. It turns out that this is a story that begins with the civil war and ends with your underpants.Teams of local men load hundreds of pounds of cotton into a truck that will travel to a regional market for inspection and sale. If the farmer is patient, he can get about $85 per 100kg from government buyers. If he needs to be paid that day, he will have to settle for a lower rate from private dealers. Photo by Andrew Flachs
With a Northern blockade of high-quality Southern cotton, the British Empire found itself in dire need of a new source of fiber suited to the textile mills that drove their economy. Indian farmers had grown cotton for centuries, but this crisis gave plant breeders and farmers new motivation to create an Indian variety of Gossypium Hirsutum, the species that accounts for 90% of the cotton we wear.
But changes in seeds have brought changes in the lives of the farmers planting those seeds: since the introduction of genetically modified hybrid seeds in 2002, wave after wave of promising cotton has been bought and discarded in favor of next year’s hot brand. The kind of agriculture that began in 1860 produces more cotton than the world can spin, but drew farmers into a high-investment, high-risk business. “Growing cotton is like gambling”, one farmer sighs to me.
One alternative comes through the work of organic and fair-trade cotton companies. Working largely with farmers who never started using fertilizers and pesticides, they can provide a seeming win-win: the farmers do what they’ve always done, but get paid a premium to do it. The flaw is a lack of pre-finance from clothing retailers that prevents the companies from paying farmers the same day like they would be paid at the normal market.
While the profit margins are high, absolute yields are low here, and delays in payment mean delays in settling seasonal debts and buying necessities. As environmentally and socially sound as programs are, if farmers can’t earn enough to pay their bills, they can’t grow organic.
And this is where the underpants come in. I was lucky enough to meet with representatives from organic clothing companies based in San Francisco and Germany, as they toured organic villages. These groups are committed to providing an honest organic product, but also the lasting social impact of community improvement. Change starts with your underwear, one company’s slogan reminds us.
I don’t want to suggest that the simple purchase of some new organic clothing will lead to environmental sustainability or cure poverty. These companies also struggle with this problem of representation, of how to market opportunity, not poverty, to a foreign market. Yet, the optimist in me hopes that it is possible that the big changes necessary to combat systemic problems of climate change, poverty, and agricultural crisis can begin with small steps.
As buyers in the commodity chain, our daily decisions help, in a small way, to determine what kinds of farming appeal to people halfway across the world. That appeal, 0ver any technology, is the true test of sustainability – how well it works for the farmers over the long haul.