From sowing to harvest, not much has changed in the way cotton is grown in India. Even mechanisation is not widely prevalent, and the cotton seed itself has seen very few advancements. Enter Arvind Ltd. With interests ranging in textiles, garments and environmental solutions, the company has partnered with Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a not-for-profit global organisation, since 2010. The BCI concept has been about growing cotton with controlled application of water and use of approved fertilisers and pesticides. The company which had 10,000 acres of land under BCI cultivation engaging 4000 farmers expanded to 100,000 acres in FY 19 with 26,000 farmers under its ambit. The plan is to scale it up further to 150,000 acres for BCI by FY 20.
India's cotton story
India is the largest producer of cotton in the world. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) pegs India's cotton production at 29 million bales in the 2019-20 season as against 26 million bales the previous year. The latest figures mean that India is all set to surpass China which has a projection of 27.75 million bales for the same season. However, despite these impressive numbers, the productivity per hectare is starkly low. The Cotton Association of India (CAI) estimates that the per hectare productivity of cotton in India during 2018-19 stands at a mere 420.72 kgs. i.e. 2.47 bales per hectare. This means higher land usage but a lower income for farmers, in addition to practices not being conducive to increased yields.
The brand's cotton journey started in 2007 when demand for textiles made with organic cotton came by, primarily from the European market. "This is when we decided to get into cotton cultivation ourselves and thereby help farmers to grow cotton as per the global standards as well as fulfill our requirements of organic cotton," says Abhishek Bansal, Head of Sustainability at Arvind Ltd. This continued for a few years before they embarked upon their first BCI project in India in 2011. Since then, the growth has been manifold in both organic and BCI initiatives with Arvind's sustainable cotton operations now spread across four different states of India. Ranjit, farmer and field facilitator at Raypar village, says that the primary focus has been reduction of hazardous pesticides and coming up with ways to reduce spacing between plants.
Such practices have been helpful in retaining farmers. "It helps in reducing input cost and second, it increases income by increasing the amount of crops they grow. We track the balance sheet of each farmer and how much profit they make and over the years, we have seen the profitability in the farmer group rising," highlights Bansal. Since the situation in farming changes every year depending on the weather and rainfall, they compare each year's data with the conventional farmers not engaged with them on both organic and BCI practices. "We have seen a consistent 15-20% gap between the conventional farm income and the income of organic or BCI farmers engaged with us," he adds. Besides the economic benefits, the initiative boasts of a slew of social and environmental advantages as well.
Increasing consumer awareness
Increasingly, consumer awareness and the multiple health benefits offered by such farming practices has led to a spike in BCI demand from brands in last 2-3 years. Arvind alone has seen its BCI cotton demand grow two to three fold in the past 4 years. Moreover, there is far more awareness now on how cotton is grown, its negative impacts and water usage. "There is a lot of data and research by scientists and government agencies on water usage, chemical and pesticide usage in the soil in the cotton fields. This momentum of data knowledge which is building up is reaching the consumer level also. They strongly believe that the negative interventions of cotton farming can be minimised," says Bansal.
Regarding organic farming, however, the company did experience a bit of a downturn in between. "The challenge has been felt more on the organic cotton side specifically because of rapid spread of BT cotton which is genetically modified cotton while in organic, we cannot use genetically modified cotton. We have to use the desi Indian varieties of cotton seeds. So getting hold of good cotton seeds has been a challenge because the development focus was on the BT cotton seeds' development," adds Bansal. The last 2-3 years though have seen the focus back on the development of seeds by private agencies as well as government institutes and their organic portfolio has started looking up again.
Over the next 4-5 years, Arvind has plans to ramp up the area under cotton cultivation to 400,000 acres of BCI as well as organic farming. The company is also looking at more projects and new cotton sourcing regions in the times to come. "We engage local ngos who are already established in the region to work with farmers on BCI principles and practices and help them with technical knowhow and purchase of the cotton," says Bansal. Ranjit is quick to jump in talking about how they keep aside 40 kilos per day of one of their village land's produce to feed the birds. "Output of that particular land only goes for birds. This is to maintain bio-diversity. By tradition, if a lot of birds come to your field, they will eat up the insects and pests that can harm crops. It is a great practice," he says.