New reports on socio-economic and environmental impacts of cotton cultivation systems

Two new reports from American Institutes for Research (AIR) and Thinkstep International examine the socio-economic and environmental footprint of three cotton cultivation systems – Organic, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Conventional – in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

India leads the world in cotton production; as of 2016-17 it produced about 38% of the world’s cotton, according to reports by the US Department of Agriculture and the International Cotton Advisory Committee. While cotton cultivation provides livelihood to millions of farmers across the country, intensive farming practices, coupled with unregulated chemical use associated with conventional cotton crops are harmful to the environment and those who produce it. BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) and organic cotton farming are two alternative cultivation systems helping to address the sustainability issues related to cotton agriculture in India.

Despite the growing demand for products that meet organic cotton and BCI certification standards and the significant anecdotal evidence of their benefit, little data exists on the social and environmental impact of these practices. To help fill that gap, C&A Foundation commissioned two studies: a socio-economic impact of all three cultivation systems in Madhya Pradesh India, which was carried out by American Institutes for Research (AIR); and a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of all three systems in the same region, undertaken by Thinkstep International.

On the one hand, AIR - in partnership with Outline India - used a mixed-methods approach to examine various socio-economic factors including, household income and expenditure, household wealth, profitability from agriculture (including cotton), as well as social indicators like health, education, child labor and female empowerment in the community. The study addresses key questions such as:

How do farmers across all cultivation systems perform on socio-economic outcomes?

What are the main barriers towards the cultivation of sustainable cotton?

What has been the farmer’s experience of the three cultivation systems?

On the other hand, the LCA focuses on the environmental impacts of cotton farming and uses data collected from 300 farmer households (100 from each cotton cultivation system) in Madhya Pradesh to assess: acidification, eutrophication, climate change, ozone depletion, photochemical ozone creation, primary energy demand, fresh/blue water consumption, ecotoxicity and human toxicity.

The findings of the reports indicate that while Organic and BCI Cotton had a more positive environmental footprint than conventional cotton farming, on social and economic side the difference is not significant. For example:

Organic cotton production has 50% less impact on climate change when compared to conventional farming, while Better Cotton does not have a significant difference from conventional cotton.

The acidification potential of organic cotton is 95% less than for organic cotton when compared to conventional cotton, while it is about 1 % less for Better Cotton.

The eutrophication potential of organic cotton is 101% less for organic cotton when compared to conventional cotton

Organic cotton cultivation consumes 60% less blue water (water obtained through ground, lakes and other freshwater resources) when compared to conventional cotton cultivation

The study by AIR on the socio-economic footprint also highlights the need for stronger economic incentives for smallholder cotton farmers to increase the adoption of sustainable cultivation practices.

The LCA and full reports can be read here:

C&A Foundation’s LCA of Cotton Cultivation Systems

Social and Economic Impact Assessment of Cotton Farming in Madhya Pradesh

Socio-economic and Environmental Impact Assessment of Cotton Farming in Madhya Pradesh