A recent report in The Financial Times of Germany alleged 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, because they actually contained genetically modified (GM) cotton. GM cotton (often called Bt cotton in India) is prohibited in organic cotton. The source of fabrics, it said, was India.
Interestingly, the paper quoted Sanjay Dave, director of Apeda (Indian Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), as saying that the fraud was on a large-scale and that two European certifying agencies had been fined for lax processes. Lothar Kruse, director of the laboratory which ran the tests, was quoted as saying that around 30% of organic cotton samples from India were found to be contaminated with GM cotton. There were charges and countercharges by all involved – and Indian organic cotton has become suspect. How did this happen?
In August, 2009, the Indian Ministry of Textiles took several initiatives to strengthen their textiles industry — among them was a commitment to “safeguard and promote” organic cotton. Organic cotton had become an important crop in India: according to the Organic Exchange, India accounted for about 65% of all the organic cotton produced worldwide in 2008-09, making India the No.1 producer of organic cotton in the world. And since the global market for organic cotton is growing by as much as 150 per cent per year (based on 2008-09 figures) its make sense for India to support organic cotton where it is already a market leader in a product for which an assured market exists and is growing.
And yet at the same time, the Indian government (through the Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry of Science and Technology) is supporting and promoting genetically modified cotton. India allowed the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) cotton in 2002, and by 2006, GM cotton accounted for 42% of the total Indian cotton crop. This makes India the country with the largest area of GM cotton in the world, surpassing China. According to Reuters, Indian farmers will grow genetically modified cotton on 90 % of the area under cotton cultivation by 2012. See our blog posts on GMO crops: Reasons for concern regarding GMOs and GMO Cotton.
Organic cotton and genetically engineered cotton are mutually self-excluding commodities – organic cotton prohibits the inclusion of any genetically engineered cotton. So the Indian government is bumbling in two contradictory directions at the same time. There have been warnings from opponents of genetically engineered crops that if GM cotton were to contaminate traces of organic cotton, the consignments of organic cotton would lose the certification that gets them a premium price advantage and be rejected by markets interested in buying organic cotton. Organizations such as Gene Watch (UK) and Greenpeace have warned that it is impossible to keep agricultural produce like cotton or rice or strawberries apart once they are ready for the market. These organizations also maintain a register of instances where genetically engineered crops have contaminated conventional or organic crops. The contamination cases run into hundreds across the world, often with grave economic consequences. Not so long ago, consignments of US rice exported to several countries had to be recalled because traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared as conventional, non GM rice. The cost of recall was prohibitive but the greater damage was done to America’s future rice exports. Once countries returned the contaminated US rice, other rice exporting nations like Thailand entered the newly available markets in Europe, Japan and South Korea and established themselves there.
And the warnings by Gene Watch and Greenpeace have just come true in the form of the scandal which broke in January, 2010 based on the report in the German edition of Financial Times
This casts a cloud over all exports of organic products from India, of which cotton is the leading item.
But in all this uproar, who is losing the most? Once again it’s the small farmer in India. The African proverb that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers, is certainly true in this case.
A bit of history: The Indian government, in a desperate bid to promote the uptake of GM seeds, banned traditional seed varieties from many government seed banks in 2002 and allowed Monsanto to sell their new seed creations. In return for this access, India was granted International Monetary Fund loans.
Because the family livelihood of Indian farmers depends entirely on good decisions being made, they often seek advice or take a lead from someone she/he thinks knows best. The average farmer is illiterate and ignorant of the implications of planting a GM crop, but lives in the hope that money borrowed to produce a cash crop will be more than repaid after a good harvest. Monsanto began advertising the new GM seed heavily; it was pervasive, with utterly misleading claims, emanating from celebrities, government officials, journalists, agricultural and corporate scientists, larger landowners and seed dealers who had either jumped on the media bandwagon or had vested interests in GM cotton sales. Bollywood personalities such as Nana Patekar attributed almost miraculous powers to the product on TV. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh personally endorsed the Bollgard brand (one of Monsanto’s GM seed varieties sold in India). Local opinion leaders such as larger landowners received seed and pesticide discounted or free, and ‘poor farmers’ who extolled the virtues of GM cotton locally turned out not to be farmers at all.
In the past, if a crop failed, the farmer could use his seed from prior years to replant his crop. But with GM seeds they could not do this, because the seeds contain “terminator technology” meaning that the crops do not produce viable seeds of their own. So farmers must buy seeds each year – at punitive prices: GM seed costs about $15 for 4 ounces of seed, compared to $15 for 4,000 ounces of traditional seeds.
Farmers are also desperate to avoid the spiraling cost of pesticides, and were taken in by GM cotton advertising and Monsanto’s extravagant claims. For example, at the point of sale, when farmers are vulnerable, seed dealers hyped up the yield of a hypothetical farmer’s GM cotton (based on Monsanto claims that yields are 30 – 40% higher than conventional hybrid seed) because the seed dealers profit is four times greater per drum than for non GM seed. In addition, Monsanto claims pesticide use will be 70% less because their Bollgard variety is supposed to kill 90% of bollworms.
This perfect storm led to widespread adoption of GM seeds by Indian farmers. But the promises made by Monsanto have proven to be false over time: GM cotton required double the amount of water that non GM varieties required (proving to be a matter of life and death for many), many crops have been devastated by bollworms and there have been widespread crop failures. (read more here ). Farmers, beguiled by promises, incurred debts that they could not repay. Thousands of farmers, according to the Mail Online in November, 2008, “are committing suicide”. The crisis, branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners, was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed that the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and condemned ‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.
Read more here and here.
Many organizations have been trying to convert Indian farmers to organic practices – “desperate times call for organic measures”. The fact that farmers don’t have to spend money on pesticides and fertilizers coupled with the premium of 15 – 20% over conventional cotton that organic cotton commands in the marketplace has helped convince many farmers that organic agriculture is worth a try. Yet now organic cotton from India has been reported to be contaminated with GM cotton, leading many to cry fraud.
This was not unforeseen: drift or contamination of GM with non-GM crops has long been a concern, especially now that 65-75% of total cotton production is made up of GM cotton. According to P. Gouri, adviser on organic products to Apeda, “measures to prevent contamination through strict implementation of a 50-meter refuge (buffer zones around farms growing GM cotton to prevent the pollens from contaminating neighboring farms) are absolutely essential. If GM farming practices are regulated strictly, we can keep contamination at manageable-levels, specially if farmers use non-cotton as a buffer.” Yet, there have been many violations of biosafety regulations; in addition there are no standards for the permissible amount of contamination in organic cotton. Nobody is addressing the problem of gene transfer to conventional plants; and a general disregard of separation distances between the GM and non-GM crop makes contamination a fait acompli . Similarly, there is a general lack of enforcement of 20 percent non-GM refugia, designed to slow the evolution of pest resistance. The several generations of bollworm that live annually on a crop can lead to 60 percent resistance in a single year.
According to the Human Genome Project, the act of genetically modifying something like organic cotton has its own ripple effect from the potential environmental impacts of unintended transfer of trans genes through cross-pollination and unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), to the loss of flora and fauna biodiversity. With no regulation of GM cotton, GM produce is entering our food and feed chain as cottonseed oil and cake. (Did you know that we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear?) Genetically engineered cotton has all kinds of stuff we’ve never eaten before: viral promoters, antibiotic-resistant genes, special bacteria. Organic food producers are very concerned. This problem will continue to grow as fourteen new GM varieties of India’s staple crops were approved for field trials that began in 2005.
Currently, India and her customers rely on third party certifying agencies, such as Control Union, to substantiate organic claims. 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.
8 thoughts on “Organic cotton fraud?”
GMO drift and contamination is a real issue and problem. However, the scale and fraud charges seem to have been grossly exaggerated. From the interview with Dr Lothar Kruse of Impetus (the source of the 30% contamination quote) given after the fraud news broke, his reaction was that it is: ““necessary to rectify some of the statements I have read in different media. Most of them have divorced facts from its context.”
For the full interview and details please visit EcoTextile News: http://www.ecotextile.com/news_details.php?id=10090
Thanks for this Harmony. I notice that the article you cite also quotes Lee Holdstock of the Soil Association who says “GMO testing laboratories agree that processed fibres, particularly those subject to heat or chemical processes, no longer contain enough nucleic material for a reliable test result. The less processed a fibre is, the more chance there is of positively detecting GM. So if you must test for GM, the most effective method remains testing of the cotton seed.” Guess we must decide what is really a reliable test, and what percentage would really constitute fraud.
Yes. In my opinion it is at the growing stage that seeds/GMO should be tested… with each step taking responsibility for their part of the journey.
Is the information presented here valid?
Organic cotton is ranked lower than silk in terms of sustainability.
please send your input this way!
I took a look at your website and am very impressed that you’ve taken on this extraordinarily complex topic! Great job.
I must admit your request is not clear – I’m not sure whether you’re asking if the spread on YOUR website is valid or if the information presented in our blog post “Organic Cotton Fraud” is valid. Our information is based on information published in various formats, including The Financial Times, The Mail online, The Institute of Science in Society, and Reuters. It’s all easily corroborated online through a variety of sources. So yes, it is valid.
The question of your spread online, rating the sustainability of various fibers, is not so easily validated. There are too many variables involved to make such blanket assumptions about wool for instance – if organically raised and processed, using holistic herd management techniques, wool can be extraordinarily beneficial to our environment. (see our blog post: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/08/11/what-does-organic-wool-mean/ and https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/08/04/why-does-wool-get-such-high-embodied-energy-ratings/ ) And rayon – I’m assuming you don’t mean cupro or bemberg rayons but rather viscose – can be very beneficial depending on the production methods employed (do they capture emissions and treat waste?) and the feedstocks (are they organic?) . Lenzing produces very fine viscose and they do a great job of it. But if their fibers, such as Tencel, are then woven by a manufacturer which doesn’t use safe chemicals or treat the waste, then the process degrades quickly. So I think you make the mistake of confusing the fibers with the final products – they’re two entirely different things.
I am, and have been a Quality designer for 30+ years. I have to tell you. I have been to India, China, etc and visited MANY MANY factories, and also done much research about FAKE organic cotton from India. LET IT BE KNOWN!!!! I am very very aware of deceptive labeling of organic cottons from india, And was also informed MOST of Indias claimed ORGANIC cotton is actualy gmo poison cotton. BELIEVE ME!!! I have seen it,,, but also I would like to add I saw MANY MANY children making clothing for the usa, some as young as 7 years old… For the factories will NOT HIRE adults , only children for meger wages… But does this price get passed along here in the usa.. NO! I have had offers to make my button down shirts for 1.25 each.. Thats organic also,,??? who knows?? We will NOT support this deceptive practice,.. we make all of our clothing in the usa ,for this reason…
BUYERS BEWARE!!!!!!!!! Organic is NOT always ORGANIC..
An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto
a friend who has been doing a little homework on this. And he in fact
ordered me dinner simply because I stumbled upon it for him…
lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for
the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to talk about this issue here on your web page.
An ineneligltt answer – no BS – which makes a pleasant change