Cotton is the most used natural fibre in the textile industry but we don’t tend to make the connection that many of the clothes in our wardrobes began life by being grown in a field, by a farmer, somewhere in the world.

A huge proportion of clothing production depends on cotton farmers. But, their welfare, health, communities and land are ravaged by using hazardous pesticides and fertilisers, often without any protection, to manage crops.

That’s why TRAID focus so much of our funding, nearly £2,000,000 to date, to support cotton farmers to stop using chemical pesticides, and grow organically.

Organic cotton ©LeighMcAlea

With TRAID’s Head of International Programmes Angela Russ, I travelled to Arba Minch, in Southern Ethiopia to meet some of the thousands of cotton farmers who have now completely stopped using chemical and synthetic pesticides as part of a project run by PAN Ethiopia and funded by TRAID since 2013.

Arba Minch is a laid-back town that feels more rural than urban. The views are beautiful and dominated by two of the largest lakes in Ethiopia, with the green and lush Nechisar National Park nestling between them.

Arba Minch ©LeighMcAlea

This is a good place to grow cotton and the region is full of small-holder cotton farmers who typically farm around 3 hectares of land. (One hectare is around the size of a football pitch.) As well as growing cotton, the farmers rotate crops with banana and maize.

We spend our first day with Bazezew and Shamber from the PAN Ethiopia team.They live locally and work directly with farmers training them in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) methods which teach farmers to manage pests, diseases and weeds to reduce, and eventually eliminate pesticide use.

Bazezew and Shamber, PAN Ethiopia team

In farmer field schools, cotton farmers meet weekly throughout the season and learn about all stages of crop development and management practices.

Farmers field school training

Bazezew delivers a meticulous five-year update of the project showing us how farmer training in natural crop management techniques has resulted in year-on-year increases in cotton yields. Which brings me to one of my favourite moments (among many) of my trip, the Log Books.

PAN Ethiopia Log Books ©LeighMcAlea

Since 2013, these books have recorded every single experiment, every trial crop failure and success, every natural pesticide combination and recipe, and every crop management decision taken. It’s a storehouse of knowledge representing countless hours of training, farmers gaining knowledge, increasing success at managing pests naturally, and more and more farmers growing organically.

Bazezew tells us,

“Inside these log books are the lessons learned from five-years of testing food spray on cotton plants. Now, we know what works. Now, yields from natural pesticide sprays are higher than using chemicals.”

Ah, food spray.

Bazezew has laid out maize, neem seeds and brewers yeast to show us some of the ingredients used to protect crops naturally. All are locally available, cheap and non-toxic.

Food spray works by emitting an ‘odour call’ which attracts beneficial insects to the cotton field which then eat harmful pests. Using food spray as an alternative to chemical pesticides has been one of the keys to the project’s success.

In stark contrast to chemical pesticides, this food spray doesn’t harm the farmer’s health; it doesn’t hurt or kill animals, insect and plants; and it doesn’t damage the soil. It’s wonderful stuff.

PAN Ethiopia have also trialled IPM techniques at a 1,533-hectare plantation farm called Lucy after persuading them four years ago to use a 1/2 hectare plot of cotton to demonstrate food spray, molasses traps and light traps.

The farm was convinced to agree to trial IPM because they had seen how successful small-holder farmers in the project had been at growing cotton without chemical pesticides.

When we meet with the Lucy farm team the following day, there is fantastic news. They tell us that they have now completed a full year using no chemical pesticides or fertilisers whatsoever on 244 hectares of cotton. Instead, they are controlling their crops using a mixture of IPM techniques including food spray and light traps.

Lucy farm team which has completed one year of growing commercial cotton without chemical pesticides. ©LeighMcAlea

They tell us they have taken the decision to go organic with a view to exporting and hope to gain organic accreditation by 2020! This is hugely significant as it will prove to other large-scale commercial cotton farmers in Ethiopia, and beyond, that organic cotton farming can be done at scale. Watch this space!

Shelle Mella Organic Cooperative

The next day is the part of the trip I’ve been most looking forward to, visiting some of the cotton farmers from the Shelle Mella Co-operative.

One of the lead farmers in the Shelle Mella Cooperative ©LeighMcAlea

The Co-op is made up of around 200 member farmers. They began as IPM farmers and what makes them special is that they are the first in the project, and the first ever in Ethiopia, to gain organic accreditation for cotton.

We meet with a group of these organic farmers and ask tonnes of questions talking for hours about life before and after the project.

One of the themes that comes up repeatedly is that farmer training, eliminating chemical pesticides, official organic certification and being part of the Co-op, has brought a very real and new sense of empowerment, control and ownership to these farmers, where previously there was very little.

Mateus, the Co-op’s Treasurer says,

“Now we are making decisions about who to approach to buy our cotton and we get better prices. The main change in our livelihoods has come from the Co-op.”

Mateus, Treasurer of the Shelle Mella Organic Cotton Cooperative ©LeighMcAlea

Belete, Chair of the Co-op agrees,

“One of the benefits is direct links we have made with the commercial market. We never had that before. We didn’t have information about price when we just sold on our own to traders. But, now we know.”

They tell us that in the past, in order to pay for the high costs at the start of each cotton season, they would get out loans from middlemen. Come harvest time, they would sell their cotton to them to pay back the loan and had little bargaining power.

Now, if they need a loan, the Co-op will provide one and the farmers are able to bypass the middle men altogether. Plus, they no longer sell as individuals but in bulk as part of the Co-op which gives them much more power to get the best price for their cotton.

The farmers also talk to us about the health and environmental changes that have taken place since they stopped using pesticides.

Wudinesh, a female farmer (she has the highest yields of any farmer in the coop!) and the Coordinator of the Women’s Spinning Association, explains,

“The pesticide spray affected the water we drank, and it goes into the lake. Kids play downstream and drink contaminated water. Women spinning cotton are also affected with fibres in their nose and eyes from spinning.”

Wudinesh, a lead farmer in the co-op hand spinning cotton, an important tradition and craft in Ethiopia. ©LeighMcAlea

She also emphasised how much safer they felt not having pesticides in their homes any longer so children couldn’t access them either by accident or on purpose. They tell us about a spate of suicides involving teenagers drinking pesticides. The relief of not having to handle pesticides, for themselves and their families, is palpable.

Belete says,

“I used pesticides before. I didn’t know the damage pesticides caused and in our local and national language, pesticides are called ‘medicine’. We handled them without gloves. We’ve seen it cause paralysis and eye problems. Some people went mad. Some people died. Still some people are sick from pesticides, but they don’t know that it’s the pesticides making them sick.”

Wudinesh tells us that one of the most noticeable impacts environmentally when they stopped using chemical pesticides was that the bees came back. She plainly states,

“Before we had no bees because we were spraying”

Today, the return of the bees is not only a sign of improved biodiversity, it also means that these farmers get an additional income from producing organic honey.

Growing cotton organically means these farmers can educate their children ©LeighMcAlea

Almost as an aside, Belete tells us that every child who has parents in the co-op, now go to school due to increased incomes from the organic premium and higher yields. When I read back through my notes, I’m struck by the enormity of this. Growing organic cotton is also providing education, literacy and numeracy and a chance to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty that so many workers in the garment industry, including cotton farmers, become trapped in.

Farmer-to-farmer training: from cotton to vegetables

A powerful part of our visit came when we sat in on a farmer-to-farmer training session. Vegetable farmers from a town called Ziway about 330 km away, travelled to Arba Minch to learn from cotton farmers about IPM.

This was the first time in the project that these techniques – farmer training and the use of natural crop management methods – would be used to grow vegetables.

Here, in a large open classroom, by the side of a cotton field with white fluffy bolls still on many of the plants, the cotton farmers began the session with prayer like chants of “IPM”.

Cotton farmers sharing their experiences using IPM techniques with vegetable growers. ©LeighMcAlea

It was a genuine privilege to observe cotton farmers teaching these vegetable growers about eliminating pesticides and sharing their experiences first-hand, farmer to farmer. In all our encounters, with PAN Ethiopia and with the farmers themselves, they all stressed that what makes other farmers willing to change the way they farm, is to see that others, like them, have done so successfully.

Wudinesh from the Shelle Mella Co-operative said,

“When my own crops improved, I invited my neighbours to farmer field training so they could also learn. People are now coming to us and asking to join.”

Throughout the day, cotton farmers, with the PAN Ethiopia team, show vegetable growers plants, common pests, how to take a specimen, how to ID plants and how to prevent pests.

We find out that these vegetable farmers currently use shockingly high inputs of pesticides, around 30 – 40 sprays between planting and harvest. Any reduction, let alone stopping using pesticides altogether, has the potential to bring massive health and environmental benefits.

The next phase

What makes this project feel special is that it is about more than supporting a finite group of cotton farmers to grow organically. It feels hopeful, expansive and full of potential for changing how cotton is farmed in Ethiopia.

With Ethiopia now regarded as a new textile hub, and more pressure than ever on fashion retailers to switch to sustainable cotton which according to WRAP, delivers more water and carbon improvements than any other actions, now is the time to increase demand and supply of organic cotton.

The right commitment, investment and belief could and should make Ethiopia a global beacon for organic cotton, and a road map for others to follow how it can be done.

Now, with the next phase of the project in place and funded by TRAID, there is the chance for thousands more cotton farmers, who are already growing cotton without any pesticides, to gain certification. Ethiopia’s future looks organic.

Find out more about our project here and by visiting PAN UK.