Organic agriculture is based on the principles of holistic farming. It embodies the philosophy of working in consonance with ecology and the environment to conserve biodiversity and to maintain ecological balance, thereby enhancing the sustainability of farm ecosystems and environment. The philosophy of organic cotton is based on the observation that insects and disease problems are an induced phenomenon known as ‘agricologenic’, due to several factors that are influenced by a chemical environment. Proponents of organic cotton believe that plants in conventional farms are physiologically unhealthy due to nutrient imbalance. Further, pesticides also disrupt the natural ecological balance by killing beneficial insects. Organic cotton farming is based on the concepts of habitat management and ecological engineering to ensure rejuvenation of soil health for the production of a healthy crop that is least vulnerable to insects, pests and diseases. Organic cotton forbids the use of genetically engineered seeds, chemical fertilisers, synthetic pesticides and chemical plant growth regulators. Organic cotton farms deploy cropping systems that support pest management and soil nutrient management. In contrast to conventional farms, organic cotton soils have more humus content, more organic carbon, and produce healthy plants. Organic cotton production systems are known to foster healthy soil, clean water and healthier farm ecosystems, thereby enhancing sustainability.
According to data available from the Textile Exchange, in 2016, the global share of organic cotton production was 0.4% and the area was 1%. In 2016, there were 8,303 organic certification centres and 50-60 brands that marketed organic cotton across the world. The global production of organic cotton increased from 24,000 tonnes in 2004 to 240,000 tonnes in 2009 but decreased to 108,000 metric tonnes in 2016. Although 18 countries produce organic cotton, only seven of them (India, China, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, USA and Tanzania) account for 97% of the total production. India has the largest share with 56% of the global production. Evidence from India, USA and Turkey shows that if backed by good science, high yields of more than 1,000 kg per hectare can be obtained. The current global average yields are low at 375 kg of lint/hectare. The yields may actually be higher, but the data could reflect low yields due to the fact that cotton is grown in only a portion of the farm, along with other plants in an organic farm, unlike the monoculture in conventional farms. The main challenges in organic cotton are inadequate seed availability, poor quality or insufficient access to organic inputs, labour intensiveness, weak scientific support, uncertain price premiums, low yields during the transition period (2-3 years), a tedious certification process, difficult traceability systems, and contamination possibilities due to coexistence of genetically engineered crops. To ensure progress, organic cotton farming needs good scientific support including breeding of robust varieties, creating efficient habitat management for each of the specific agro-eco regions, developing easier certification, inexpensive testing, reliable traceability techniques, and by providing risk mitigation for small-scale farms.