Warangal: Two decades ago, Damera Yakamma's husband, a cotton farmer in a southern Indian village, committed suicide by consuming pesticide because of his mounting debts, leaving his widow in charge of their two acres of land.
After that, the mother of four - then in her mid-twenties - decided she did not want any more chemicals entering her home.
With the help of a non-profit in Telangana state's Warangal district, Yakamma and some other local farmers grew their first organic cotton crop in 2005 using natural manure and bio-pesticides.
They benefited from lower costs, better health and soil, and premium market prices as buyers sought their higher-quality cotton.
But they lost their organic certification in 2015 after a genetically modified cotton variety known as BT, promising higher yields and pest resistance, spread so widely across India that they could no longer buy indigenous seeds from dealers.
Still, the farmers stuck with natural growing methods to produce cotton sustainably, in a bid to meet growing demand from fashion brands that are increasingly adopting targets to cut climate-heating emissions in their value chains.
According to the Confederation of British Industry, in 2020 sustainable cotton accounted for nearly 20% of the global cotton supply. Demand is rising by 20% per year, with many leading garment manufacturers pledging to use only sustainable cotton by 2025 in response to consumer concerns over the environment.
About six million farmers in India cultivate cotton on 12 million hectares, producing a quarter of the world’s cotton, making it a key market for scaling up sustainable production.
In response, global initiatives that work with the fashion industry are promoting sustainable cultivation among Indian farmers, including reducing the use of chemicals and using natural resources like water more judiciously.
Such organised efforts are still limited in scale, however, meaning that farmers like Yakamma - who are trying to grow sustainable cotton independently while also adapting to climate change - are struggling to get a better price in the market.
As the movement for greener, ethical cotton production gains a foothold in India, experts are calling for farmers to receive a bigger share of the benefits, as well as more support from the government and brands to cope with rising climate stress.
Aggressive pesticide marketing
Even after the organic cotton farmers of Yakamma's village had to start sowing BT seeds - now planted on 95% of India's cotton fields - she and about 20 others continued to use natural cultivation methods, keeping their costs about a third lower as they avoided expensive chemical pesticides.
Nonetheless, they cannot sell their cotton for premium prices without a certificate to prove it is sustainable, they said, adding that they struggle to fetch even the minimum price set by the Indian government under pressure from market traders.
"When we take our crop to the market, it is like taking a dead body to the morgue," said Damera Sadanandam, a cotton farmer from the village.
Traders exploit farmers' urgency to sell and pay 25-30% less than the government-fixed price of 6,000 rupees ($72) per quintal, saying the cotton is too moist and of inferior quality, he said.
To help such farmers, some international sustainable cotton organisations - including Better Cotton Initiative, Fairtrade and Organic Cotton Accelerator - have established independent quality standards and licensing models to secure better prices.
Besides working with farmers to advance sustainable practices, the initiatives are pushing to make cotton processing ethical and reduce health risks, as well as connecting producers with big brands looking to source greener cotton.
But they face several challenges in scaling up this work, with proliferation of chemical pesticides among the largest.
India's legal framework on the management of pesticides and its enforcement needs to be strengthened, noted Saleena Pookunju, senior programme manager for Better Cotton in India.
Manufacturers and vendors are flouting the law by aggressively promoting unregistered pesticides among farmers, she said.
And with climate change threatening the livelihoods of millions, many panic and are persuaded to purchase and use farm chemicals, putting them under more financial strain, she explained.
Once they reach their credit limits, most are forced to turn to informal lenders charging annual interest rates of 60-72%, Pookunju said.
Vendors of pesticides also act as money lenders, and coerce farmers to buy their products through agents working on commission, entrapping farmers in a vicious circle of using hazardous chemicals, she added.
Climate change hikes risks
On top of this, climate change is exacerbating the pests and diseases that affect the cotton crop, said D. Narasimha Reddy, an agricultural economist based in Telangana.
Until a decade ago, scientists recorded about 260 types of pest attack per season in India but the number has since risen to 350, said Reddy, noting that the incidence of fungi has also increased, especially one that blackens the cotton inside the ball.
Solidaridad, an international farmer network based in the Netherlands, warned in a paper this month that such pests and diseases will increase in a warming world.
It said that all cotton-growing regions, including India, will be exposed to increased risk from at least one climate hazard by 2040, including extreme heat and water stress, with poorer cotton producers expected to suffer disproportionately.
Farmers will need additional support to adapt to climate change and transition to greener practices, said sustainability scientist Manan Bhan, who works with the India-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.
As farmers are central to sustainability strategies being implemented by the private sector, business "needs to walk the talk", involving farmers and their collectives from the start, he said.
Once farmers' needs and challenges have been identified, they should be offered training and capacity-building to roll out greener practices, backed with financing options to ease the transition, Bhan said.
For the shift to happen on a large scale, Reddy said the government also needs to create policies to support farmers by providing them with subsidies, easy licensing, marketing channels, storage and processing, and insurance for climate shocks.
Solidaridad's paper puts the onus on cotton retailers and brands - which have "the greatest share of money and influence in the value chain" - to be a driving force in the industry's transition and go beyond just purchasing 100% of their cotton from certified sources.
"They need to establish agricultural budgets to invest in regenerative and agro-ecological practices that support producers to adapt to, and mitigate, climate change," it said.