Organic Consumers Association

Organic Cotton Blooms in West Texas

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August 15, 2003


7 August, Matthew Carrington, Cairo Times

Something of an organic revolution is going on in the Egyptian agricultural scene.  According to Tawfiq Hafez, Director of the Central Laboratory for Biological Agriculture, the amount of land certified as organic under international regulations has increased from about 140 acres in 1990 to more than 40,000 today, and the amount of chemical pesticide imported for use on Egyptian farms has decreased from 33,000 to 3,000 tons. Hafez, sitting beside his desk, laughs a little gleefully. "Bayer closed their station here and left because there are no sales­because they cannot afford the running costs. I am very happy."

The biggest player in the Egyptian scene is currently Sekem. Founded in 1977 by Ibrahim Abouleish, it is now run on a day to day basis by his son, Helmy Abouleish, from an office that looks over the production floor of Hator, their packaging and production division. Starting pretty well from scratch­Helmy recalls that when they started it was two roadless miles to the nearest transport­the Abouleishs have built Sekem into a network of businesses and production units that now employs 2,000 people, directly farms 450 acres and manages production on a further 6,000 acres around Egypt and 1,500 in Sudan.

The view from the managing director¹s office is of a long, spotlessly clean white-walled room where a long row of tables is being used to pack vegetables­6,000 tons of vegetables were processed down there last year, most of which were destined for the European market. Around 10,000 tons of medicinal herbs were also collected and packaged, and over 100 tons of organic cotton.

Out in the desert east of the Suez Canal, there is another relatively large-scale and apparently successful organic enterprise. Al Hoda Agro-manufacturing is taking a slightly different approach to the business of producing organic vegetables, one that leans heavily on computer tracking and management and high-tech irrigation systems in farming its 1,200 acres. Khaled Muhammad Al Sheikh, general manager of Al Hoda, explains that he can track the growing of crops and adjust acreage to meet production targets under changing conditions, as well as trace the production of any product through every stage of its growth all the way back to the person who planted the seed. He proudly shows off the farm¹s weather station, which feeds a mass of information on solar radiation, soil temperature, relative humidity and so on directly into the computer that runs the irrigation system.

Al Hoda has been in the food export business for a while, having done business with English retailers such as Marks & Spencers, Tesco and Sainsbury¹s since the 1980s. It was not until 1999, however, that they went organic, getting certified by the Soil Association Certification Ltd., a UK-based company linked to the Soil Association.

Al Hoda is also investing in building Egyptian capacity, working with academic agricultural programs around Egypt to train several hundred undergraduates every year in the techniques of organic production. The company is also associated with the Agricultural Commodities Committee, a government sponsored body that, according to Sharif Rashed, its executive manager, has now produced­with the help of Hafez and other

experts­guidelines that they hope will become the basis for national legislation to oversee the industry in Egypt.

Unlike Sekem, which now sells a substantial amount of its produce (around 65 percent for some lines) on the local market, Al Hoda¹s local sales are still relatively small. Its products are marketed under the label of a distribution company, A&H (which stands, they say, for Appetite and Health), and sold in Metro, Carrefour and Alfa Mart. The manager of A&H, Heba Kheireldin, says that supermarket sales are about 10-15 tons a year locally but notes that they also have the contract to supply the Multinational Forces and Observers (MFO) bases in Sharm Al Sheikh and Al Areish with organic produce year round. She says she expects the high prices of organic foods­the main bar to higher local sales­to drop.

The Egyptian Biodynamic Association (EBDA)­founded at the initiative of Sekem but independent since 1996 and now a registered NGO­is one organization actively working to increase the amount of land being farmed organically and to support the efforts of farmers once they have converted.

"It is essentially an umbrella organization" explain Klaus Merckens, the association¹s general manager, "with about 470 members, most of whom are small-holders, from all over Egypt, from Alexandria down to Aswan."

EBDA offers continuous training in a wide range of subjects related to organic farming, from composting to grape pruning to integrated pest management, and they can also provide the training and expertise needed to enable a farmer to have land inspected and certified as organic by EU standards. In doing so, they often find themselves confronting a basic problem­many farmers who would otherwise convert their land to organic farming find themselves unable to do so because their landholdings do not meet the approximately 10 acre minimum plot size that can be certified according to the regulations (due to concerns about contamination from neighboring, conventional cultivation).

As a solution, says Merkens, "We are encouraging our farmers to cooperate­not only do they share the work, but they share the management of the land as well." The solution has the dual advantage of making the land easier to protect from unintended pesticides or herbicides and of enabling these organizations to take advantage of economies of scale. Merkens cites an example. "In Fayoum there is a complete village which has applied this system of cooperation between farmers to a very wide extent... there are about 200 families cultivating their land together­there is a total of about 330 acres being managed according to both EU and Demeter regulations."

Another area in which EBDA has been influential has been the production of organic cotton. During the 1990s, working with the government, they developed a biodynamic pest control program in conjunction with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture that is now used in 80 percent of the Egyptian cotton crop. Because the program relies heavily on the use of pheromones­natural substances that attract specific insects­in trapping harmful insects such as the bollworm and cotton leaf worm, this has meant a cessation of aerial spraying of pesticides (which interfere with the effect of the pheromones). Besides this, research work by EBDA has shown that cotton plants grown under EU and Demeter specifications can produce yields 12 to 15 percent higher than conventionally cultivated crops in adjoining fields, and has prompted a steady increase in the amount of cotton grown this way. Today there are about 1,500 acres of organic cotton under production.

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11 August,


Dr. Tom Bruulsema, Eastern Canada and Northeast U.S. director, Potash & Phosphate Institute says that organic farming cannot be practices on a large scale as nutrient balance and productivity will limit success, according to the Minnesota Farm Guide Website.

As a small proportion of the total farm population, organic crop producers benefit from the nutrients provided from synthetic fertilizers. Use of phosphorus and potassium fertilizers has built up soil fertility - today about 45 percent of North American soils test medium or less, compared to more than 70 percent 30 years ago. Even though it may take decades for the soils to be depleted of their reserves, nutrient imbalance will put a limit on the sustainability of organic cropping, says Bruulsema.

According to Bruulsema, productivity is the other constraint limiting the sustainability of organic cropping. Because of lower yields, widespread adoption of organic cropping would push production onto marginal land - land more susceptible to erosion and nutrient loss. And less would be left over for wildlife habitat.

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2 August,

The Right Reverend Paul Bemile, Catholic Bishop of Wa, last week appealed to farmers in the northern regions to embrace organic farming which has been scientifically proved to be environmentally friendly as well as sustaining the fertility of the soil. Bishop Bemile made this call in a speech read on his behalf at the celebration of this year's diocesan Abor Day held at Funsi in the Funsi Parish of the South Sissala District.

Abor Day or tree planting day, is under the theme: "promoting, sustainable development through environmental consciousness". Rev. Father Cornelius Naah Bayirinoba, Vicar General of the Wa diocese deputised for the Bishop at the function at, which 650 seedlings of grafted mango, cashew and cassia were planted to mark the day. Bishop Bemile recalled that those who originally introduced the use of chemical fertilizer into the country did so with a one-sided message that is how effectively its application could significantly help crop yield, without telling the people of its long-term destructive effect to the environment.

He noted that the Funsi area, which was once known for its bush meat, particularly the grasscutter, is now without its animals because of the destruction of their habitat.

Bishop Bemile called on Ghanaians to stop our negative practices, which destroy the environment and called on the people to live up to their duty to care for God's creation.

He therefore, called on the farmers to stop farming along the banks of rivers and dams, which desilt the rivers and also desist from indiscriminate felling of trees and the use of dangerous chemicals for fishing.

Mr. James Dumah, Manager of the Funsi Agricultural Project called for the setting up of effective structures to enforce the laws passed on environmental degradation.

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11 August

West Texas is at the forefront of organic cotton production worldwide. About 30 families from Muleshoe to San Angelo comprise the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, which has about 10,000 acres of land under cultivation.

La Rhea Pepper has taken it upon herself to tackle the lack of markets for organic cotton products.  From her store in O'Donnell, Pepper houses three
companies: Organic Essentials, which makes cotton swabs, cotton balls and feminine hygiene products; Cotton Plus, which sells fabrics to wholesalers and individual customers; and Organics for Massage.

In addition, she travels the globe encouraging high-profile clothing manufacturers to use more organic cotton in their products. She was in London earlier this year and just recently returned from a trip to California. In November, Pepper hopes to travel to Thailand.

Her efforts and the efforts of other organics boosters already have yielded fruit. Athletics and outdoors clothing companies, such as Patagonia and Nike, have agreed to use organic cotton in their clothing.

Pepper's grandfather started cultivating a plot of land in northern Borden County in the '20s.  Pepper said he originally was drawn to organics as a way to differentiate his crop from the conventional market.

Despite the efforts of the committed few, doubts remain about organic cotton's ability to compete with conventional cotton.  Sukant Misra, associate dean for research at Texas Tech's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, researched the market for organic cotton six years ago.  "The bottom line I can tell you is the potential for organic market is pretty small," he said. "It's a niche market."  Misra said a market exists for the material, particularly in Europe and among people with chemical insensitivities, but he did not see much potential for tremendous growth.

The biggest challenge for organic cotton is its price.  A price premium is not "going to grow any further because demand isn't growing," Misra said. "If the supply is already there to meet the demand, there's no need for the market to pay more for the cotton.  "About 10 years ago, some people said organic cotton was going to start competing with conventionally grown cotton," he said. "I seriously doubt that'll happen."

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