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LONDON – A major study into the impact of Better Cotton practices found a decidedly mixed picture in terms of environmental performance and profitability for farmers. The study examined farmers in the Indian regions of Maharashtra (Jalna and Nagpur) and Telangana (Adilabad) using Better Cotton practices and compared their outcomes with farmers in the same areas who did not follow Better Cotton guidance (the control group). 

The study found sharply reduced yields for Better Cotton farmers versus the control group in both regions. In terms of profits, prices received for cotton, and costs, there were variations in performance between the two regions, with Better Cotton farmers generally performing marginally better than the base group in Maharashtra but performing less well than the base group in Telangana. The study measured performance over a three-year timeframe from 2019 to 2022.

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Better Cotton has attempted to put a positive spin on the findings but detailed analysis of the findings reveals a different picture. Better Cotton claims: “The study found that Better Cotton Farmers were able to reduce costs, improve overall profitability, and safeguard the environment more effectively, compared with non-Better Cotton Farmers.”

Is this the case? Our analysis of the detailed findings showed that:

  • From baseline to endline, farming inputs costs (include all synthetic and bio fertiliser, insecticide, herbicide, fungicide costs) decreased for both Better Cotton and Control group farmers over the three-year time-frame. In Maharashtra (Jalna and Nagpur) costs decreased more for Better Cotton farmers while in Telangana (Adilabad), costs decreased more for the control group farmers.
  • For Maharashtra, profits per acre were more for Better Cotton farmers than the control group. For Telangana the reverse was true. Combined the effect was that the average change in profits per acre over both states were more for control group than Better Cotton farmers.
  • In terms of average change in price achieved from baseline to baseline, the Better Control Group farmers performed better than the control group across the two regions
  • In terms of average change in cotton farming costs per 100 kg, in Telangana, costs decreased more for control group farmers; in Maharashtra, costs decreased more for Better Cotton farmers.
  • The study saw significant decrease in yields for Better Cotton farmers compared to control group farmers in both Maharashtra (Jalna and Nagpur) and Telangana (Adilabad). This would likely explain the decreased profitability figures earlier
  • In terms of use of synthetic fertilizer, there was a reduction in use of these in Telangana for control farmers compared to Better Cotton farmers. However, the reverse was true in Maharashtra where there was a reduction in their use by Better Cotton farmers compared to Telangana.

What should we make of all these findings? Our take is that, as with the previous lifecycle analysis study into Better Cotton’s impacts in India, the results suggest the impact of introducing Better Cotton practices is negligible. It certainly does not justify the continued claims being made by the NGO (as well as Textile Exchange) that Better Cotton is more sustainable cotton is more sustainable than its conventional counterpart. As the results above show: it’s complicated. Moreover, the decreases in yields observed among Better Cotton farmers must be a huge cause for concern.

What does Better Cotton say about this? In the report, it states: “Both groups of farmers experience a decrease in yields. In endline, 58% of the surveyed farmers indicated a decreased cotton harvest. The main reasons related to yield reduction were heavy rainfall and pest disease. This finding is in line with PP observations raised during validation sessions. The decrease in the yields was 87 kg per acre (215 kg per hectare) greater among Better Cotton farmers than control group farmers, equivalent to a 14 per cent decrease when compared to baseline. Using the market prices received by Better Cotton cohort farmers, we find that this implies a US$96 per acre loss in cotton sales. This result is not in line with Better Cotton’s Theory of Change …”

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