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Reports of Bt contamination stain premium organic cotton exports

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Widespread reports in Europe that premium organic cotton exported by India is contaminated with genetically modified (GM) cotton have tarnished the image of a fast-growing segment of the country’s textile exports.

The scare in Europe was sparked by a report in the German edition of Financial Times a couple of weeks ago that a ‘gigantic fraud’ was taking place in the sale of cotton garments marked as organic by leading European retailers like H&M, C&A and Tchibo, but which actually contained GM cotton. The source of fabrics, it said, was India.

According to Organic Exchange, an international non-profit organisation that promotes the growth of organic farming, India accounted for as much as 65 per cent of the 175,113 tonnes of organic cotton produced worldwide in 2008-09.

The report quoted Lothar Kruse, director at Bremerhaven-based independent testing laboratory Impetus, as saying that around 30 per cent of the samples were contaminated with GM cotton.

Interestingly, the paper quoted Sanjay Dave, director of Apeda (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), the nodal agency for exports of organic, as saying that the fraud was on a large-scale and that two European certifying agencies had been fined for lax processes. Since then a clutch of leading European textile trade journals has been splashing the story, casting a cloud over the burgeoning exports of organic products from India, of which cotton is the leading item.

In an interview with Business Standard, Dave said he had been misquoted in the report. There was a problem of contamination in 2008 but that had been resolved last year, he said. “We maintain the strictest standards and two European certifying agencies — Control Union Certifications and Ecocert — were fined Rs 15 lakh and Rs 7.5 lakh each for failing to take proper procedures. I am surprised why this issue is cropping up again.”

It appears that the Indian subsidiaries of the two European certifying bodies have failed to check the seeds being used by organic farmers who have used seeds of Bt cotton, as the GM cotton used in India is popularly referred to. GM is strictly taboo for industrial users and consumers of organic cotton.

According to P V S M Gouri, adviser on organic products to Apeda, organic cotton fetches a premium of 15-20 per cent over conventional cotton and accounts for 10 per cent of the total cotton production. “There has been a tremendous increase in the past two-three years of organic cotton production, but there is a problem of availability of non-Bt seeds,” she says. However, the bigger concern is contamination from Bt cotton fields.

Measures to prevent contamination through strict implementation of a 50-metre refuge (buffer zones around farms growing Bt cotton to prevent the pollens from contaminating neighbouring farms) are absolutely essential, says Gouri. “If Bt farming practices are regulated strictly, we can keep contamination at manageable-levels, specially if farmers use non-cotton as a buffer.”

But, with around 65-75 per cent of the production in the country coming from Bt cotton, contamination is a fairly widespread concern. This is specially so since most of India’s farms are tiny, of 1-1.5 hectares each. Says Jitender Kumar, assistant vice president of Alok Industries, a textile firm: “The issue of contamination has not been addressed seriously. We need a clear cut policy on the issue on how much segregation is necessary. And no standards have been developed in the country for the permissible amount of contamination in organic cotton.”

The problem is serious, concedes G V Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. “The gene flow for Bt cotton is highest at 50 metres, but even at 100 metres there is possibility of contamination. Even if one plant in a one-acre plot – it can have 4,000 plants — is contaminated, the chances of contaminated seed in the next season are high,” says the scientist who was earlier with ICAR.

It is a concern for textile companies who have organic cotton in their portfolios. Alok Industries, one of the largest integrated textile companies with sales of Rs 2,160 crore in 2007-08 (exports accounted for close to half), is a major user of organic cotton that it contracts from farmers in Vidarbha in Maharashtra and Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh. Of its total consumption of 450,000 bales (one bale = 165 kg) last year, 20 per cent was organic cotton, specially grown for the company. It exports small quantities of organic cotton yarn, but is a major supplier of fabrics to top retailers like H&M.

Kumar, who is in charge of the company’s unique programme to use ethical cotton (it subscribes to Fair Trade, a process which guarantees fair remuneration to farmers and other stakeholders in the textile chain), points out that there are “no appropriate policies or measures to protect organic cotton farming”, although “more farmers will be converting to organic because of its long-term sustainability.”

Alok Industries says reports of contamination could have a serious impact on the potential of organic cotton exports, that is immense if stricter standards are maintained. Dave says Apeda is already doing this by “keeping a closer look at organic cotton certifications”. Currently, certification is being done as per GOTS, or global organic textile standards, but India is formulating its own standards.

The biggest innovation is TraceNet, a web-based traceability system that has been introduced in the country, to trace and track all organic certifications for exports to ensure purity. Inspectors employed by certification agencies will use GPS devices for capturing data so that wrong certifications are eliminated.

Organic exports should be secure with TraceNet, says Dave who predicts that exports of organic products should double to Rs 1,000 crore in the next two years.

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First Published: Sat, February 06 2010. 01:13 IST