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Is global cotton at risk unless brands help farmers save water?

<p>Simple measures provided through farmer training can have a huge impact on the water footprint of smallholder farmers.</p>

CottonConnect warns that more support is needed for cotton farmers as they grapple with the effects of water scarcity. The company calls for the cotton supply chain to help take farmer training to scale to increase yields and reduce the water footprint in cotton-growing regions in the developing world.

Basic interventions such as farmer training and knowledge-sharing on basic agricultural practices have resulted in 30 percent reductions in water use among smallholder farmer and installing simple technologies, such as drip irrigation systems, have resulted in water savings of up to 60 percent.

CottonConnect, a business with a social mission to help retailers and brands create a more sustainable cotton supply chain, has issued a new report [PDF] which looks at how brands can work with smallholder farmers.

It says that to protect the cotton industry, brands need to get involved in supporting smallholder farmers in the developing world, where over 100 million smallholder farmers are responsible for 90 percent of the world's cotton production.

Three steps to a better supply chain

CottonConnect suggests brands collaborate on these three goals:

1. Map and ensure greater transparency and closer relationships across the supply chain;

2. Support farmer training programs for basic interventions to reduce water footprints;

3. Collaborate and help to fund initiatives to help drive cotton supply chain sustainability at scale.

"Through farmer training program, working closely with more than 130,000 farmers, we have learned that many do not have access to basic information and training," said Alison Ward, CEO of CottonConnect.

"But implementing simple measures farmers can improve their yield and make significant water savings. With these sorts of findings and with the knowledge that there are more than 100 million farmers involved in cotton production, we know we need to scale up these efforts to dramatically reduce the water footprint in the cotton industry. But we cannot do that without the support of brands.

"Brands selling cotton clothes and homeware products are reliant on a supply chain which is facing severe climate change impacts and water shortages. It is in their interest to work closely with organizations that can influence cotton farmers in conserving and making better use of the water they have.

"We offer an opportunity to make that happen. We have access and trust of the farmers through our partners - and we can scale-up our impact more than ten times over with the right support. Failure to connect all parts of this supply chain will put the future of cotton at risk."

CottonConnect has worked with 130,000 cotton farmers and their families in India, Pakistan and China, proving that basic interventions can make a huge difference to the water being used to grow cotton, one of the world's most thirsty crops.

Credit: World Bank Photo Collection via FlickrThe company has collaborated with major brands, including John Lewis, and organizantions such as C&A Foundation along with the Better Cotton Initiative, to help improve relationships with farmers on the ground, improve resilience and share best practice in basic agricultural techniques and technologies, in cotton growing regions of the developing world.

The new report invites other brands and retailers to support education and training among smallholder farmers to increase impact and scale. It says that if companies work in collaboration with NGOs, governments and their competitors, they can help to scale-up these proven water conservation methods and drive sustainability improvements across the entire cotton supply chain, which consists of more than 100 million smallholder cotton farmers globally.

The water debate is in the spotlight, with major global corporates helping to raise the profile of today's most pressing water challenges.

"But the other end of the supply chain is often overlooked. With 100 million farmers growing cotton globally, the impact that can be had through providing access to learning and basic technologies is significant," says the report. "Companies, NGOs, governments and international development agencies must not forget the farmers on the ground that need the help and support of all stakeholders if they are to run more efficient and sustainable operations."

Case studies in the report

The " Basic Agricultural Practices Adopted in India " case study highlights CottonConnect's farmer training program in Maharashtra , a western region of India where the falling water table has left farmers vulnerable. Some simple changes to practices — such as burrow irrigation, green mulching and soil conservation - has enabled farmers to improve yields and reduce their water use by 30 percent.

Another project in India was funded by the C&A Foundation and designed to improve the productivity of the cotton crop for farmers by cutting the water footprint through the use of irrigation. Magan Bhai from Sanosara village in Gujarat, India installed a drip irrigation system and increased his production of cotton by 50 percent compared to the previous year. Last year, his earnings jumped from INR190,000 ($3,147) to INR285,000 ($4,720).

"Bringing John Lewis Face to Face with its Cotton Farmers ," discusses the U.K. retailer's three-year farmer training program with CottonConnect designed to improve its relationship with suppliers and increase traceability of its products. In total, 1,500 farmers will be trained, positively affecting the lives, livelihoods and employment of around 7,500 people — and giving the John Lewis buying team a full understanding of exactly where their cotton comes from.

Top image of cotton plant by -RS- via Flickr. This article first appeared at .

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