Organic cotton gains popularity in the south

JALAL-ABAD (IRIN) — Many cotton growers in southern Kyrgyzstan are joining an organic farming drive in the area, with numbers up almost six times since the initiative kicked off in 2003.

Suerkul Orunbaev from the Shaidan village of the southern Kyrgyz province of Jalal-Abad, one of the main cotton producing areas in the country, remembers his initial doubts about organic agriculture three years ago.

«The risk of failure was high. In the first year, the cotton yield dropped significantly and it [hit us] financially. But in the second year the yield rate improved and I got a comparatively better income. I hope it will improve even further,» Orunbaev said.

Organic agriculture emphasises sustainable management of natural resources and does not encourage farmers to use mineral fertilisers, synthetic pesticides or genetically modified crops.

Switching to organic methods can also help farmers increase their income by selling cotton at higher prices but with lower costs. At the same time, they can avoid serious health and environmental problems that accompany mainstream cotton farming, with its heavy reliance on chemicals.

Prices for organic cotton are on average 20 percent higher than those for the conventionally farmed crop. In 2005, Kyrgyz organic cotton farmers were paid US $0.60 per kg of raw organic cotton, while traditional cotton growers were offered $0.40 at best per kg.

But the new method of cultivating cotton is not without its challenges. Mirzaakim Kurbashev Mirzaakim, a farmer from the Suzak district of Jalal-Abad, has grown organic cotton with his wife and eight children for three years now. He admits that it means more manual work in the field for his family, but he has broken free from relying on chemical fertilisers.

«Since I started organic farming my attitude to the use of chemical pesticides has changed totally. I now believe that it is possible to farm without chemicals. During this time I achieved a good cotton yield and sold it at a comparatively good price. Little by little life is getting better,» Kurbashev said.

Organic cotton growing in Kyrgyzstan was initiated by the BioCotton project, supported by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and the Dutch Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (HIVOS). The project is implemented by Helvetas, the Swiss Association for
International Development.

«SECO believes that Kyrgyzstan has great potential for the further growth of organic agriculture. Natural conditions are favourable, there’s enough water and fertile soil, and chemicals are often too expensive for farmers to use anyway,» Asel Usekeyeva, national programme officer for the Swiss Cooperation Office, said in the capital, Bishkek.

Nicolas Boll, manager of the BioCotton project in Jalal-Abad, explained that organic cotton farmers should not expect dramatic changes in their livelihoods in the short term. «Normally, in Europe the clear economic advantage of organic agriculture is only felt after between 10 and 15 years because during the conversion period yield decreases must be expected.»

Since 2003 when the project was launched, 225 farmers have joined the drive. In 2005, they produced 166 mt of raw organic cotton, soon to be shipped for export. By the end of 2003, the first 40 participants had produced around 25 mt of the commodity.

The BioCotton project plans to recruit 450 Kyrgyz farmers in 2006 and increase the output of environmentally friendly cotton to 300 mt. By 2009, the project expects to hand over its activities to a locally owned private company which will provide services to the farmers and maintain the production and export chain.

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