the cotton war looms large

For some time now, a cold war has been rumbling on between India and China – Asia’s biggest economic powerhouses, and the predicted future global superpowers.

While tensions between these two nuclear neighbours have yet to reach USA – Soviet levels, there has been a long term antagonism between them as each strives for dominance in a new world of global economics.

One of the principal factors in the war has been commodities, both states are large scale producers of raw materials, as well as having massive amounts of cheap labour. The ability to vertically integrate production of items such as clothing for the export market has been massive for both China and India in terms of development and financial growth.

As I referred to clothing there, the obvious commodity which comes into play is cotton, the world’s most successful commodity. It is grown on vast scales in both countries by both small holder cooperative type arrangements, and monocultural agri-business.

But China has always grown much more cotton than India – there are various reasons for this – now the main one now seems to be that Indian cotton is generally hand picked, as opposed to the machine picking which is done in countries like Australia (reportedly the world’s most productive cotton country), the USA, Brazil, and indeed China.Even if this were to change, it seems unlikely that Indian soils, water supplies and farming practises would be able to sustain a greater level of production.

Per hectare Chinese cotton farmers may be able to plant more than ten times the amount of cotton plants than their Indian counterparts. This has an obvious affect on output.  Production yield per hectare then is about 1,301 kg in China, compared to a 2008 high of around 554kg per hectare in India, which has now dropped to 475kg.

This low level production, along with a dry year, a drop in global cotton prices and a corresponding likely future decline in acreage under cultivation means that for India to maintain or increase its garment production levels, it is likely to move from being an exporter of raw cotton, to needing to import cotton in only a few years.

Added in to the mix is the factor of a growing battle for acreage between cotton producers and food grain producers – the latter being likely to secure better subsidies, thereby luring farmers away from cotton. India’s growing demand for meat (as it develops a more western lifestyle) means greater demands on grains to be used as animal feed. That’s not even taking the population growth into account.

We may note that some experts have also suggested that India’s disasterous introduction of BT cotton into Maharashtra has also spoiled its chances of gaining dominance in the area of organic cotton production, this is my own area of particular interest – but not the subject of this article.

When it comes to textiles, China is the world’s largest exporter, with a global market share of 28.3 percent in 2010, approximately 7 times the size of India’s share of 4.3 percent.

It’s massive export volume requires China to maintain a huge cotton processing industry, and as that grows its reliance on imported cotton, particularly from the USA, will grow. For India to continue to try and compete with China, it will have to go toe to toe in the search for sources of cotton to import. This may be good news for some of the South East Asian countries looking for cash crops, but India is way behind China in terms of its cultural outreach – Chinese influence and financial clout has seen it extend agriculturally into countries as far away as Africa.

As these two antagonistic neighbours both seek new sources of raw cotton, I predict that by 2020 we will see a marked rise in demand for conventional cotton from places like Central and South East Asia, and Northern Africa.

But despite China’s dominant market share, India is used to pushing the odds, and to punching hard. Its vast population continues to grow exponentially and its financial muscle grows daily. If there is to be a cotton war, which seems highly likely to me, it could get very nasty, much may yet depend upon the USA’s relationship with China, and how it’s commitment to massive cotton subsidy holds up in the teeth of ongoin recession and growing demand for both bio fuels and food crops.

sources: Economic times; Tirupur exporters association; South Asian Idea

Previously on there goes rhymin simon – US Cotton change could save lives


Damien the Leper

Today is the feast day of the Roman Catholic Saint Damien – or Damien the Leper.

Damien was a Beligian, who took a religious vocation which led him eventually, at the age of 33, to the island of Molokai, where a community of people lived who suffered with Leprosy. This community was abandoned, shunned, by a world which feared the contagion of the ancient disease.

Damien spent his life on Molokai, serving the people of the island, and living as the poor among the poor. Eventually, after living among on Molokai for 12 years, he too contracted leprosy, and four years later he died.

He is a true inspiration for all of us.

In case you weren’t aware, leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is still a scourge of many developing countries. In 2009, there were nearly 134,000 new cases of leprosy in India alone. Major efforts to ‘eradicate’ the disease have yet to prevail, but many people I speak to don’t realise that it still exists.

If you are interested in learning more, have medical, research, or other skills you could contribute to the ongoing battle, or feel able to make a donation towards the work, you could start by visiting The Leprosy Mission if you are UK based, or the American Leprosy Mission if you are in the US. There are also a number of other excellent Leprosy charities.

In the meantime, consider Damien’s life an object lesson in self denial and Christ like determination to serve the poor and downtrodden.

Tirupur Dye Houses closed

Tirupur in India is one of the world’s centres for clothing production. Sitting next to the city of Coimbatore, Tirupur is a place I have visited on a number of occasions, to visit factories, print shops, dye houses and so on.

Principally Tirupur is home to knit wear factories, they make tee-shirts and other knitted cotton items, many of which find their way to high street chains here in the UK.You may be wearing something right now that was made in Tirupur.

Certainly if you buy from shops like supermarkets or the larger chain stores, then there is a very good chance you have items which were made in Tirupur. But as well as being home to a few high standard production units, Tirupur has also struggled in recent years, with a reputation for production facilities which are not what they could be – or should be. Where workers are, if not necessarily mistreated (although sometimes that is the case), then not given the respect or conditions that they deserve. This is not a malice thing, it is about costs. If you are looking at saving a few cents on each garment, then you arent going to spend as much on your workforce, or their workplace.

Hand in hand with this kind of treatment of humans, has gone harsh treatment of the environment. One of the most environmentally damaging aspects of the clothing supply chain is the dye process – because of the scale of production, the dye plants are huge things, with massive amounts of chemicals used on a daily basis. The usual process for the kind of fabric which teeshirts are made of, is Jet dyeing, where fabric is zoomed through a process where jets of hot water containing dye and other chemicals are pumped into them – this process uses large amounts of electricity, steam and of course the chemicals themselves.

The problem comes of course, not so much in the dyeing process itself, which is energy intensive but contained,  but in the disposal of effluent.  There has to be an issue of effluent after the dying process, and it will necessarily contain, among other nasties, large quantities of salt – as anyone who has dyed a piece of fabric at home will know.

The cheapest way of getting rid of such effluent is to dump it in a water course, and that is what most operators do, they simply pump their polluting effluent into nearby rivers. This kind of pollution has meant that the agricultural land in the area has been badly affected by pollution and salination over a number of years.

Attempts have been made to set this right, plants have been prosecuted and closed down, even the British government got involved (they realised we import 90%+ of our clothes, and recognised we have some responsibility to the producers) and for a while Tirupur began to be held up as an example of ‘best practise’. Levels were set to regulate the amount of salt in effluent, to try and protect the surrounding farmland, and it all seemed to be going in the right direction.

Not for long of course.

This week comes the news that Madras high court has ordered over 700 dye plants to be shut down – yes, 700. The local electricity board has begun to shut off power to those who have failed to comply with the order. The reason is that the level of salt in the effluent discharged into the local water courses is too high. Once again farmland has been terribly damaged by discharge of salt – and its the dye houses which are to blame.

As it stands the 700 plants are on shut down, thousands of jobs which go with that are at risk or already lost – suppliers will not be getting their materials, clothing supply will be affected. Farmland is polluted and will not produce a proper harvest this year, and meanwhile people continue to buy cheap clothes because they dont see the link.

I actually feel rather sorry for the dye house owners and operators, they are in a hard world, trying to provide a service against very tight price demands – I genuinely feel that we, the consumers and producers are not really being fair on them.

I feel that at the centre of it all, it’s our consumption that is driving this pollution problem, it’s our quest for a bargain that is putting lives and livelihoods at risk, and it’s our choices which have meant that today many poor people stand on the brink of ruin.

So yes, 700 dye houses are closed today, and I’m sorry to have to tell you that it is pretty much our fault.

Indian organic cotton fraud?

The news is out about contamination of organic cotton by genetically modified cotton in India. Certain Indian producers have failed to suitably protect their crops from contamination in a major scandal which has been called a fraud by some observers.

Rather than accept claims that the cotton has been cross contaminated through pollination, there are suspicions that GM seeds have been used to artificially boost yields in otherwise poor conditions.

This is a temptation with organic cotton production, which can result in poor yields if growing conditions arent right. GM seeds provide reliably good yields in all situations, leading some producers to choose GM as a way of ensuring a good crop.

But now some big names including H & M, and the European brand C & A have been called to account for failing to adequately test their cotton to ensure it is organic.

My sources tell me that Control Union (CU, formerly SKAL) have now decertified whole regions of India in the face of this scandal. Indeed very few farm level certifications are now available.

This is a very dangerous situation for India, organic cotton producers there are fond of claiming that China can never reach their level of organic cotton production, as GM prevalence is too widespread there. But if GM spreads too widely across the cotton growing belt of India too, they will find themselves in the same position.

More information here, or if you can read German, there is a very good and fulsome article here.

I love India.

In fact, I love Asia as a whole, but as I’m in India right now, I’m reminded of its endearing idiosyncracies. For instance, the way their approach to English punctuation is often the opposite to ours, wheras the English put unwanted  apostrophes everywhere, Indians often miss them out altogether. As a good example I drove past “Anus Beauty Parlour “the other day, actually the parlour belongs to Anu, where’s Lynne Truss when you need her?

But its not just my patronising attitudes to cheerful disregard of punctuation which make me like it here, it is a genuinely great place, with lots of amazing people. People who make the best of a difficult situation in many cases.

I am always particularly impressed by Indian drivers, who I regard as some of the best drivers in the world. Yes I know the traffic here is horrendous, with roads shared by motorvehicles, bikes, carts, mad people, animals and pot holes, but that doesnt make the drivers bad drivers! Rather it makes them extraordinarily good drivers. How they manage to drive on these roads is beyond me, the spatial and traffic awareness is incredible – yes they do sometimes get it wrong (always ask for an older/experienced driver) with tragic consequences, but I honestly think that these guys are some of the canniest and cleverest drivers ever.

Much like China, India is often looked down upon as ‘primitive’ by supposed developed nations like the UK, but just as China’s industrial revolution came before ours and should really have eclipsed ours, so India has been developing forms of technology which are much more impressive than ours. The classic example being the lunch deliveries in Mumbai, which are effectively run on a bar-code system and work with amazing efficiency, despite the characteristic appearance of chaos.

There is a degree of cultural snobbery in the west which sees the apparent danger and chaos in a place like India, as symbols of backwardness. This will have to change as India and its cold war rival China take centre stage in world politics and economics in the next couple of decades.

there is still a lot of comedy here though, and I’ll leave the last word to the incredulous American lady who sat near me at dinner the other night. In a shrill southern squawk she announced to her colleagues, “yesterday I saw a family of four on a motorcycle, today I saw two men and a pig!”

I dont need to make the case for Fairtrade cotton

The case for fairtrade and organic cotton makes itself .

In India, since 1997 there have been nearly 200,000 farmer suicides, according to some reports the rate is now at one suicide every 30 minutes.

The amjority of the suicides are in the notorious ‘big five’ states, India’s suicide belt of Maharashtra, Andhara Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh which account for approximately 66% of the total.

Of these, Maharashtra is the worst, having logged 41,404 suicides since 1997. It is claimed now that about ten farmers kill themselves every day in the state.

In 2008 a bundle of relief was handed out to farmers by government bodies, but that hardly seemed to dent the number of desperate people taking their own lives. The following year, 2009 was a drought year, as yet there are no figures for 2009, but it would seem obvious that they are going to be worse.

These figures arent unique to India, all over the developing world similar stories are told of farmers who take their own lives because of effective slavery to debt (caused often by the unscrupulous sales tactics of chemical salesmen). Also these farmers have no guaranteed income, if their crops fail, they get nothing, and if they have already spent a lot on chemicals, they get less than nothing… and if they have chosen a cash crop over any kind of subsistence farming, rather than a combination as favoured in an organic set up… then they have less than nothing and no food.

Farmers of all kinds of cash crops are trapped in cycles of debt and poverty which, combined with the hard nature of the practical work they are involved in, are too much for them. Desperate and helpless, they take the only way out they can think of.

In accredited organic and fairtrade systems, the farmers are liberated from the crushing debt cycles to which others are subject. They are supported through the development processes by NGOs and cotton companies who have an interest in ensuring the farmers are making a viable living, not completely dependent upon cash crops, and not destroying their land through the mono culture cultivation practises of conventional agriculture.

I dont need to make the case for fairtrade cotton, the farmer suicides alone make a compelling enough case. Rather those companies and consumers who continue to choose conventional cotton over organic and fairtrade need to make a case for their lethal choices.

where on earth..?

yet again it seems like its been a while since I posted here, but that is basically because once again I am in India. Having previously not been to India for years, I am now on my third trip in less than twelve months.

I am here again to visit fairtrade registered clothing factories, to look at how they are operating and iron out some technical issues relating to garment production. All this has been a pretty steep learning curve for me, and one that I have enjoyed greatly – albeit with more than a touch of carbon guilt playing on my mind as I fly backwards and forwards.

I have also found myself in the unusual position of ‘the rich guy’ who has to be looked after and checked up on wherever I go by my anxious Indian counterparts. This was somewhat stifling on my last trip, this time I have pretty much managed to circumvent it whic his a relief.

Having said that I dont really have much by the way of free time, I’m out at factory sites for most of the day, and in a car for quite a while too. So while I would like to see more of this wonderful country while I am here, its not really something I get the chance to do.

India, for all its charm and manifold delights is of course a place of grinding poverty. This is one of the main reasons I am here, the impact that fairtrade has here can be huge. Whereas with organic cotton cultivation the farmer groups or their commercial partners must come up with all the cash for social uplift themselves, with fairtrade the farmers are given a guaranteed premium for what they produce, which means that the social uplift comes from within rather than without.

However, there are problems at the moment with fairtrade cotton, the principal one being that people arent buying it in sufficient quantity. One major retailer which was one of the pioneers in Fairtrade cotton has recently scaled back its commitment to buying, in favour of a less costly scheme, leaving the cotton processors who have invested heavily in fairtrade cotton rather in the lurch.

Unless we can get consistency with buyers, then this will be a rocky road for the producers. One way for that to happen would be for buying companies to form co-operative buying groups, allowing them to be able to buy sensible amounts of goods on a consistent level. One factory owner I met yesterday complained that he was getting orders for 250 pieces, which in his terms is so minute as to be not worth it. However, for the buyer this may represent a reasonable investment, without the risk of having unsellable stock. If that buyer were to find three other like minded buyers, and they clubbed together to buy 1000 pieces, they would not only save money per item, but they would also help the factory immensely. This has the knock on benefit of being more sustainable, as the lower purchase price means more profit for the buyer, and a better likelihood of continuing in business.

I must admit to having had my grumbles and qualms about the fairtrade system recently, what with the uptake by brands like the much maligned (quite reasonably) Nestle, and the less maligned but also huge Cadbury. However, these kind of trips help to restore my faith in what for farmers can be a very good system indeed. As monitoring increases and more players come into the field, the system will have a really positive impact on factories too. All the FT factories I have visited have been of a high standard in terms of labour rights, cleanliness, and so on. Personally I think that as Transfair, the American fairtrade people get to certifying more supply chains in this area, we will see some real progress.

If brands and consumers can stick with fairtrade for ten years, I think that we will find it become the new norm. A decade of fairtrade cotton could prove to be the end of farmers in suicidal hock to chemical companies, and kids toiling in sweatshops. The question is, can we bear to pay the premium prices for a decade, or perhaps the real question is, can they bear for us not to.

There is a fight on, the vested interests in conventional cotton will not give up their cash cow lightly, nor will the sweatshop owners relinquish their ability to make money out of desperate people.  But my message is simple, make the changes you can, dont buy the cheap fast fashion, consider all purchases and when you need to buy a new garment, where possible buy from responsible companies who are investing in organics and fairtrade – in doing so you are helping to change the future.

And it will make the nightmare I had trying to get a blinking visa all worth while 🙂