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How and Why Our Clothing Choices Matter

In a place where population growth is moving incredibly fast, added pressure on farmers in India in the wake of crushing debt and failed crops calls for a new agricultural approach. Genetic modification and organic farming present promising solutions. Young Explorer Andrew Flachs will investigate the effect of both growing strategies by interviewing farmers in Southern India.

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I came to India hoping to learn about the connections between a simple choice of clothing and sustainable agriculture happening in the fields.  It turns out that this is a story that begins with the civil war and ends with your underpants.

Teams of local men load hundreds of pounds of cotton into a truck that will travel to a regional market for inspection and sale.  If the farmer is patient, he can get about $85 per 100kg from government buyers.  If he needs to be paid that day, he will have to settle for a lower rate from private dealers.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

Teams of local men load hundreds of pounds of cotton into a truck that will travel to a regional market for inspection and sale. If the farmer is patient, he can get about $85 per 100kg from government buyers. If he needs to be paid that day, he will have to settle for a lower rate from private dealers. Photo by Andrew Flachs

With a Northern blockade of high-quality Southern cotton, the British Empire found itself in dire need of a new source of fiber suited to the textile mills that drove their economy.  Indian farmers had grown cotton for centuries, but this crisis gave plant breeders and farmers new motivation to create an Indian variety of Gossypium Hirsutum, the species that accounts for 90% of the cotton we wear.

Off to be spun - a worker at the loading dock in the regional agriculture capital of Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, rests on the bales of cotton that he has just loaded.  One bale can be more than 400 pounds.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

Off to be spun – a worker at the loading dock in the regional agriculture capital of Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, rests on the bales of cotton that he has just loaded. One bale can be more than 400 pounds. Photo by Andrew Flachs

But changes in seeds have brought changes in the lives of the farmers planting those seeds: since the introduction of genetically modified hybrid seeds in 2002, wave after wave of promising cotton has been bought and discarded in favor of next year’s hot brand.  The kind of agriculture that began in 1860 produces more cotton than the world can spin, but drew farmers into a high-investment, high-risk business.  “Growing cotton is like gambling”, one farmer sighs to me.

The overwhelming majority of cotton seeds are hybrids, meaning that they grow especially well in their first generation but that they are too genetically similar to be successfully planted if the seeds are saved.  They are therefore bought new each year in shops like this.  In addition to being genetically modified to produce the Bt toxin, these cotton seeds are also often bred to respond well to high amounts of fertilizer and water.  This gives  great yields to farmers with resources  but leaves growers without them frustrated and perplexed.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

The overwhelming majority of cotton seeds are hybrids, meaning that they grow especially well in their first generation but that they are too genetically similar to be successfully planted if the seeds are saved. They are therefore bought new each year in shops like this. In addition to being genetically modified to produce the Bt toxin, these cotton seeds are also often bred to respond well to high amounts of fertilizer and water. This gives great yields to farmers with resources but leaves growers without them frustrated and perplexed. Photo by Andrew Flachs.

One alternative comes through the work of organic and fair-trade cotton companies.  Working largely with farmers who never started using fertilizers and pesticides, they can provide a seeming win-win:  the farmers do what they’ve always done, but get paid a premium to do it.  The flaw is a lack of pre-finance from clothing retailers that prevents the companies from paying farmers the same day like they would be paid at the normal market.

While the profit margins are high, absolute yields are low here, and delays in payment mean delays in settling seasonal debts and buying necessities.  As environmentally and socially sound as programs are, if farmers can’t earn enough to pay their bills, they can’t grow organic.

In hill and forest regions, farmers build huts on stilts to protect their crops from wild pigs and birds.  Organic farming is especially popular in these regions, where soil fertility is lower, villages are more isolated, and the profit margin is more important.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

In hill and forest regions, farmers build huts on stilts to protect their crops from wild pigs and birds. Organic farming is especially popular in these regions, where soil fertility is lower, villages are more isolated, and the profit margin is more important. Photo by Andrew Flachs.

And this is where the underpants come in.  I was lucky enough to meet with representatives from organic clothing companies based in San Francisco and Germany, as they toured organic villages.  These groups are committed to providing an honest organic product, but also the lasting social impact of community improvement.  Change starts with your underwear, one company’s slogan reminds us.

Farmers spend the night in bamboo huts to protect their crops from wild animals, building fires to keep warm in the winter.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

Farmers spend the night in bamboo huts to protect their crops from wild animals, building fires to keep warm in the winter. Photo by Andrew Flachs.

I don’t want to suggest that the simple purchase of some new organic clothing will lead to environmental sustainability or cure poverty.  These companies also struggle with this problem of representation, of how to market opportunity, not poverty, to a foreign market.  Yet, the optimist in me hopes that it is possible that the big changes necessary to combat systemic problems of climate change, poverty, and agricultural crisis can begin with small steps.

Hidden by millet, a woman moves from her guard hut to join me for a morning interview.  We spoke while she walked around her field, shouting to make her presence known to birds and pigs, ready to enforce her threat with the rock she held in her hand.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

Hidden by millet, a woman moves from her guard hut to join me for a morning interview. We spoke while she walked around her field, shouting to make her presence known to birds and pigs, all the while ready to enforce her threat with the rock she held in her hand. Photo by Andrew Flachs.

As buyers in the commodity chain, our daily decisions help, in a small way, to determine what kinds of farming appeal to people halfway across the world.  That appeal, 0ver any technology, is the true test of sustainability – how well it works for the farmers over the long haul.

Local youth compete in a kabbadi tournament sponsored in part by an organic company.  A mix between tag and wrestling, boys compete for the chance to win $50 in a raucous day of fun and games.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

Local youth compete in a kabbadi tournament sponsored in part by an organic company. A mix between tag and wrestling, boys compete for the chance to win $50 in a raucous day of fun and games. Photo by Andrew Flachs

NEXTRisk and Reward for Organic and GM Farmers: A Tale of Two Villages

Read all of Andrew’s blog posts 

Comments

  1. ROSEMARY RENSHAW
    Gamleby ,Sweden
    February 12, 1:29 pm

    the complexity of our world today has really reeked havoc with our earth,the bees ,the bumble bees,the hard working farmers.
    your photos and reports from cotton growers in India have been very inspirational and informative.The fact that it comes down to our very underwear is a basic eye-opener.We need more of this
    kind of disclosure