In Demand Worldwide
About 8% of the cotton traded in the world market is harvested in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa cotton is almost exclusively grown by smallholder farmers, and there are only very few large plantations. The cotton plant loves warmth – it needs about 200 days of sunshine in the season to flourish and bear fruit. For that reason alone, it does well in the dry or humid savannas of Africa. The climate, with its high average temperatures and alternation between dry and wet seasons favours the growing of this natural fibre crop.
It takes about six months from planting to harvesting of cotton. After the harvest, seed and fibre are separated from each other in the gins, and the thin coating of wax that surrounds the fibres and protects them from wetness is removed. At the end, the raw cotton is pressed into large bales, and sold onward to the spinning mills for yarn manufacture. Thus it starts its trip along the textile chain – from the spinning mill to the finished garment.
Vegetation Zones of Africa with CmiA Growing Areas
It Takes About Six Months from Planting Cotton to Harvest
In many parts of the world, cotton is grown in large plantations, but in Africa it is almost exclusively grown by smallholder farmers, using crop rotation. In other words the cotton is grown alternately with other crops such as the basic food crops maize, soy or groundnuts. That reduces leaching of soils and the occurrence of pests. Cotton is often a complementary cash crop – it is grown for sale, alongside the foods grown in subsistence farming. The growing methods which farmers are taught by Cotton made in Africa also help the smallholder farmers when growing food in subsistence farming, and thus play an important part in securing their food supplies.
Artificial irrigation, as often used in large plantations, is practically not used in Africa. The smallholder farmers work with rain-fed cultivation, in other words natural rainfall has to be enough for watering the crops. The wet and dry phases in the African growing areas are helpful to meet the needs of the cotton plant. In its growth phases, cotton is highly sensitive to excess moisture – in the first germination and growth phase, the cotton plant needs wet soils, but in the maturing phase the quality of the fibres may be damaged if conditions are too wet. The available rainwater has to be used efficiently, specifically in the dry areas of Africa. That requires balanced use of fertilizer or mulching. The soil between the cotton plants is covered with organic material such as leaves to reduce loss of moisture by evaporation.
Man versus machine – the cotton in the US, Brazil and Australia is harvested with gigantic machines, but in African growing areas harvesting is mainly by hand. Of course that takes much longer, but it also gives major benefits compared with machine harvesting – the machine makes one pass through the cotton field, taking not only the cotton boll, but everything in the field; human pickers work in a much more careful and environmentally sound way. The hand pickers take only completely mature fibre bolls. Hand-picked cotton is also cleaner, because the machines take considerable quantities of soil, leaves, twigs, etc. with them.
Another benefit is that hand picking, unlike machine harvesting, does not use defoliant, so there is less chemical contamination of the cotton. However, there are also quality problems to be faced by African cotton picked by hand. The widespread plastic waste, which has unfortunately spread even to remote villages of Africa, may lead to the presence of foreign material. CmiA is tackling this problem in cooperation with the African partners.
No other plant is as attractive to pests and viruses as cotton. High use of pesticides is thus a negative side effect of cotton cultivation worldwide. Only a small number of alternative farmers completely abstain from using pesticides and sell their raw material as organic cotton. The percentage of organic cotton on the global market is currently still low which is partly due to the higher production costs.
Genetically Modified Cotton
Cotton pests show increasing resistance to the pesticides used. A part of the global cotton industry sees a solution to this problem in genetically modified cotton that protects itself against some of the pests with its own insecticide. More than 90 percent of cultivated cotton in the main growing countries USA, India, and China is now genetically modified. Many African cotton farmers view genetically modified cotton as a technical advancement from which they do not want to be excluded. Currently, genetically modified cotton in Sub-Saharan Africa, however, is only grown by smallholder farmers in South Africa, in Sudan, and Burkina Faso. Cotton made in Africa has made a commitment to not allowing genetically modified cotton to be grown under the initiative. The use of genetically modified seeds is part of the exclusion criteria (Exclusion Criteria No. 14) of the Cotton made in Africa standards.
Cotton made in Africa
Cotton by Cotton made in Africa is grown by smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa, according to the CmiA standard criteria. Specifically, this means that the cotton is grown under rainfed conditions and with effective and responsible use of pesticides and fertilizers. The harvest is done by hand. Cotton made in Africa has defined the requirements of the farming methods in a list of criteria, with compliance regularly checked as part of the verification process.
Fine Fibres - Cotton from Africa
Cotton from Africa has relatively long fibres and is carefully picked by hand. That makes it a high-quality raw material. It is no coincidence that cotton is a popular material for T-shirts, trousers and shirts – cotton feels soft and pleasant on the skin, it is breathable and absorbent.
Cotton is a natural fibre obtained from the seed hairs of the cotton plant (“Gossypium spp.”) and comprises mainly cellulose. After pollination, the bloom of the cotton shrub produces a capsule fruit (boll), about the size of a walnut. In this period, the cotton seeds are formed inside the capsule – they are bundles of long fibres (“staple”) and a layer of shorter, fluffy fibres (“linter”). Only the long fibres are used for textile production. When the fruit capsule is fully mature, it bursts open and the “cotton fluff” spills out.
Cotton yarn is spun from the seed fibres, which can grow to a length of more than 40 millimetres. Their strength and their unique structure makes them ideal for spinning – the fibres are twisted like a corkscrew, so they do not tear during spinning. The short fluffy fibres (linter) cannot be spun, but are used for example in manufacture of cellulose.
The quality of raw cotton is assessed by a number of different criteria. These include colour, purity, fibre length (staple), fineness, strength, and evenness. The decisive factor for the textile industry is fibre length – the longer the fibre, the higher the quality. Staple length is between 18 and 42 millimetres. There are four staple categories: short, medium, long and extra long.
African Cotton is High-Quality
African cotton flourishes under good conditions with plenty of sunshine and in rain-fed cultivation. It has relatively long fibres, and comes into the medium staple length category (1 1/8 inch, that is about 28.5mm) and gives yarns that can be used for a range of applications, and are processed worldwide to make materials for fashion and home textiles.
African cotton is mostly grown by smallholder farmers and hand picked, which ensures its good quality. Cotton made in Africa has time to ripen, and is harvested by hand at the right time and taken for further processing. The high quality of African cotton is further improved by Cotton made in Africa – training programmes are provided for smallholder farmers, teaching them for example the use of modern, efficient growing methods that work with the minimum possible use of pesticides, helping them to increase their yields and the quality of the fibres. Trials are currently being conducted in Benin with the use of cotton bags for harvesting, to reduce foreign matter in the form of leftover plastic materials, which are unfortunately increasingly to be found in the fields of Africa. In some of the Cotton made in Africa growing regions, the cotton is cleaned of impurities again manually before it goes on to the next processing stage, that is ginning.
Biodiversity - Diversity Threatened
Biodiversity (coined as a short form of “biological diversity”) is understood to mean the variations of all organisational forms of life – in terms of species, genetic diversity of flora and fauna, and in whole ecosystems. These three levels are very closely interlinked – animals and plants need intact eco-systems and sufficient genetic variability. But an ecosystem works only if it is home to a whole range of species. Intact habitats are essential for the genetic diversity of an ecosystem.
If this equilibrium is disturbed by external influences, that often has unsuspected consequences for people and for flora and fauna. At the end of a complex chain of cause and effect, whole species may become extinct and ecosystems be destroyed. This makes it increasingly difficult for nature to cope with extreme climatic events such as long droughts. And of course the consequences of decreasing biodiversity mainly affect the poorer rural sections of the population, because they are directly dependent on the fertility of the soil.
Sustainable cotton growing:
= Maintenance of biodiversity
= Threat to biodiversity
Problems Caused by Monocultures and Plantations
Large-scale agriculture, as it occurs in the cultivation of cotton in many cases, is often characterized by monocultures, heavy use of pesticides and high water consumption levels, and thus threatens biodiversity in its environment. There is too little time to enrich the soil with natural nutrients (which happens at Cotton made in Africa through crop rotation with legumes, soybeans, or peanuts, among other things). In the long term the soil becomes depleted, crop yields become increasingly poorer, and pests spread. As a result, some farmers have to use increasing amounts of pesticides and fertilizers in order to secure their crops. In the end what's left is barren wasteland and new crop areas need to be developed. The groundwater is heavily contaminated and causes disease among humans and animals. Another problem is the high level of water consumption: heavy use of artificial irrigation often leads to soil erosion and salinization. The groundwater level falls, rivers or wetlands dry out, drinking water for humans and animals becomes scarce.
The necessity of rethinking agricultural concepts
These effects can be countered by concepts for sustainable cotton growing, as set out and agreed in the criteria of Cotton made in Africa. They aim to get agriculture and nature into harmony, and to contribute in the long-term to the maintenance of biodiversity. There are a number of cultivation measures which contribute to protection of the diversity of species, including above all crop rotation in cotton growing, which helps to maintain the quality of the soils. Other characteristics of sustainable cotton growing are efficient use of pesticides and fertilizers and responsible use of water.
Extensive cotton growing demonstrably causes great damage in some parts of the world. It is necessary to rethink concepts in order to reduce the negative impacts on humans and the environment, and to maintain diversity as the web of life. Diversity is not only a value in itself, but also has economic significance, especially in the developing countries. Sustainable concepts in agriculture can help to secure people's livelihoods.