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2-Plants: GE cs. organic cotton in South Africa

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TITLE:  GM Pays the Bills
SOURCE: Mail & Guardian, South Africa, by Alex Hetherington
DATE:   Mar 27, 2003

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GM Pays the Bills

Seven of every 10 South African cotton farmers have switched to
genetically modified (GM) varieties. The others still plant conventional
cotton and use pesticides and chemical fertilisers. South Africa has no
market for organic cotton. The GM farmers produced 25 130 tonnes of
cotton in the 2001/02 growing season.

On the Springbok Flats, north of Pretoria, Willem van der Walt runs a
mixed farm producing sorghum, cotton, rotational crops and pigs. He is a
firm GM convert.

"It is absolutely essential," he says. "Our production costs have
decreased 40%. Zero tillage allows for greater water retention in the
soil, we use fewer pesticides and our maintenance costs for machinery are

Van der Walt insists his farming methods are environmentally sensitive
because he uses less pesticide.

"The production of organic cotton is possible, but you need long-term
market agreements to make it attractive," he says.

Klaus Sall, a Danish organic cotton specialist who works with a foreign-
funded project that hopes to introduce cleaner technology to the South
African textile industry, reinforces the point. Cotton-growing is the
first point in a long production line that produces the clothes we wear.

"If the customer wants it, South Africa can make it," says Sall.

A small but growing demand for organic cotton is creating viable niche
markets in the United States and Europe. Nike marketed its first 100%
"organic" range of clothing last year and now wants 5% of all its
products to be made from certified organic cotton by 2010. The company
buys 600 tonnes of organic cotton a year, but this is increasing by 100
tonnes every year.

Other companies that are following the trend include LL Bean (US),
Mabrouc (Switzerland), Ikea (Sweden) and Marks & Spencer (Britain).

Though South Africa has no market for organic cotton, Sall believes local
producers should not be discouraged because there is already a global
demand for 10 000 tonnes a year.

Turkey is the world's largest producer of organic cotton, though it has
no local market for the crop. It hasn't been an easy ride for the Turks,
whose small-scale farmers have relied on contracts with foreign companies
committed to the organic varieties.

Uygun Aksoy, chairperson and founder of the Turkish Association for
Organic Agriculture, says the government was pessimistic about the
project and farmers resisted converting their land to organic farms,
which took three years.

Yields first declined by 15% to 20% before stabilising. "But these losses
were offset by long-term price increases of 20% to 26%, because buyers
were prepared to pay a premium for the organic materials," says Aksoy.

Bo-Weevil, a Dutch organic manufacturer, believes customers in Europe are
prepared to pay more for the environmental benefit of organic cotton, but
this has not yet been the experience of countries such as South Africa
and Australia.

Thabo Tshabalala, national education secretary of the South African
Clothing and Textile Workers' Union, says local consumers will be
prepared to pay more for organic products once they know the costs of
using chemicals in the manufacture of textiles.

"It's like medical insurance," says Tshabalala, citing the inherent
environmental and health risks of non-organic production methods, "you
are prepared to pay for it, though you never know when you will need it."

Karen Lundbo, the coordinator of the Textile Cleaner Production project
who is trying to encourage local retailers to introduce organic ranges,
also believes that a local demand will be established.

"Price is an important factor, but the fact that companies like Nike are
mixing organic with conventional cotton shows that the manufacturers are
actively doing something about it."

Time can be a fickle agent, but farmers such as Van der Walt know that GM
now pays the bills.