200 cotton farmers in Ethiopia are the first ever in the country to receive organic certification. The farmers are part of a project training small-scale cotton growers to reduce and stop using dangerous pesticides. The project began in 2013 with 90 farmers, and today is flourishing with over 2,000 farmers taking part. The first official organic cotton accreditations in the country were secured on 26th December 2017.

The project is funded by TRAID, supported by the Pesticide Action Network UK, and delivered in-country by PAN Ethiopia.

Maria Chenoweth, CEO at TRAID said, “Since 2009, TRAID has committed nearly £1,000,000 to support cotton farmers to stop using hazardous pesticides and use safer more sustainable alternatives. In Ethiopia, the farmers involved in this project will now get the organic premium for their cotton, and are the first in the country to do so. It’s a hugely significant moment and the project is well on its way to more farmers becoming accredited.”

Tadesse Amera, Director of PAN Ethiopia said, “The project has helped farmers to achieve yields higher than those in conventional farming and has reduced agro-chemical dependency and its related negative human health and environmental impacts.”

Farmers have been trained on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques in Farmer Field Schools and are now achieving cotton yields over 100% higher than untrained farmers in the same area. They have also seen increases of 77% in the price per kg of cotton since the start of the project. Without drenching their crops with harmful pesticides.

The project trains ‘lead’ farmers, who then provide support to 10 ‘follower’ farmers in their area. Farmers are trained in soil and water health, ecological pest management principles and learning to grow other crops alongside cotton. Typically, this knowledge has disappeared as reliance on pesticides has taken hold.

Training farmers in soil and water management techniques
Training farmers in soil and water management techniques

Farmers in the project also use natural pesticides – a homemade food spray – which are made from local ingredients like ground neem seeds. It is used to attract ‘good’ insects to their fields which eat the pests which threaten their crops.

The project trains farmers to use natural rather than chemical pesticides to protect their crops.
The project trains farmers to use natural rather than chemical pesticides to protect their crops.

A version of this spray has already been used successfully in Benin, West Africa in another TRAID funded project supporting organic farmers, and some of these Beninese farmers went to Ethiopia to share learning at the start of the project.

Ethiopian farmers now report that for the first time after years of pesticide use, buzzing bees are returning to their fields, which also means they can increase their incomes by keeping hives and selling honey.

Bees are returning to fields now farmers are growing cotton without pesticides
Bees are returning to fields now farmers are growing cotton without pesticides

Before the project, these farmers were using pesticides heavily and indiscriminately to manage fussy fragile cotton crops. Like millions of other small-holder cotton farmers around the world, crops were sprayed by hand with old equipment and no protective clothing.

The health implications are severe. Globally, nearly 1,000 people are estimated to die every day from acute pesticide poisoning. Many hundreds of thousands more suffer from chronic ill health, including cancers, neurological diseases and infertility.

This dire health situation also costs money. According to the 2012 United Nations report ‘Global Chemicals Outlook’, pesticides are also poisoning Africa’s health services by a huge $6.2 billion per year, more than the total international aid assistance of $4.8 billion given to Sub-Saharan Africa for basic health services.

Farmers become trapped in a spiral of crop mismanagement and debt, spending up to 60% of their income on pesticides while they struggle to grow on poor soil depleted by pesticide overuse

With farmers, their families and surrounding communities so negatively impacted by pesticide use, the continued development of organic cotton production is essential, and this work shows that an agro-ecological approach is working for farmers and helping to removing hazardous pesticides from the environment.

Sheila Willis, Head of International Programmes at PAN UK said, “The farmers involved have made the most of the training provided. It is to their credit and the brilliant team in Ethiopia that they are the very first in the country to secure organic accreditation for cotton. We anticipate that this will bring them new opportunities to market their high-quality product. The Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and the local agricultural departments in the project area has been very supportive of this initiative and we look forward to working closely with their extension services to share experience with many more farmers in future.”