Better Cotton in a Changing Climate
This article is written by Ashok Hegde, CEO for Fibre, Agri-industrials and Ag Services at Olam Agri and a Better Cotton Council Member
Cotton is not only the world’s most used natural fibre, but also a source of livelihood for the millions that depend on it. Cotton directly supports the livelihoods of 350 million people worldwide, including 100 million farmers. Yet, the cotton plant is extremely sensitive to changing weather conditions and the impact of climate change on cotton crops will make managing cotton supplies even more challenging.
Across the world, farmers continue to be impacted by extreme weather patterns such as erratic monsoons, droughts and excessive rainfall. Smallholder farmers are exceptionally vulnerable to weather events. Extreme weather events have the ability to destroy an entire harvest, thereby threatening the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
According to Cotton 2040, 40% of cotton-producing regions are likely to see their growing seasons shortened due to rising temperatures by 2040, while drought could hit half the global crop. It is, therefore, critical for us to work together to help smallholder farmers cope with climate impacts and build a more resilient and sustainable cotton supply chain.
As one of the world’s largest cotton merchants, Olam Agri has decades of experience building an integrated global cotton business by working directly with large-scale farmers in Australia and the Americas, and smallholder farmers in Africa. We know that the key to protecting our business starts with building climate resilient supply chains for cotton. We are working together with the people that matter most, our farmers, to boost yield, provide food security and secure farmer income. We operate in Côte d'Ivoire, Chad and Togo by helping farmers maximize their crop potential and diversify their income through rotational crop such as maize, sesame and groundnuts.
In Côte d'Ivoire, we work with 20,000 farmers over 100,000 ha of cotton farming area. We have improved average yields from 500 kg/ha in 2008 to 1,212 kg/ha in 2021. We set up quality committees to provide training to farmers, transporters and co-operative managers. We distributed de-linted seeds to increase plant density which has improved yields and farmer revenues by 20%. Our operations in Côte d'Ivoire are Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA) and Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) certified.
In Chad, following the acquisition of a majority stake in Cotontchad in 2018, we have supported close to 200,000 farmers with agri-inputs, financing and price support to grow the crop from 17,500 tons of seed-cotton in 2019 to 146,000 tons in 2022. Better seed de-linting has resulted in higher plant population. Training on agronomy practices has helped increase yield from 400 kg/ha to 530 kg/ha. Our Chad operations are CMiA certified and BCI implementation is underway.
In Togo, following the acquisition of a majority interest in NSCT in 2020, we have worked with 68,000 farmers growing cotton over 73,000 ha. We have increased seed-cotton yield from 671 kg/ha to 765 kg/ha. This has been achieved through improved cotton seed varieties, promoting minimum tillage practice and farmer training on good agricultural practices, resulting in better plant population per hectare and improved yield. This year, operations in Togo completed its CMiA certification process and is currently working on BCI certification.
We have demonstrated in multiple countries that farming cotton more sustainably supports better yields, improves working conditions, and provides financial security. The farmers that we work with have quickly adapted to new sustainable climate resilient farming techniques like regenerative agriculture with a focus on soil health improvement and integrated pest and disease management.
Driving sustainable cotton production
While sustainable cotton production is already taking place in the supply chain, further growth will require brand/retailers and consumers alike to increase their demand for sustainable cotton. We recognise that this requires our supply chain partners to actively support sustainable sourcing policies – brand/retailers to increase their uptake of sustainable cotton and the industry to increase traceability and transparency of cotton supply chains.