Swiss promote organic cotton production in Kyrgyzstan

December 31, 2003, organic-research.com/Swissinfo: Switzerland is hoping to increase the production of organic cotton by training farmers in Kyrgyzstan in fertilizer-free agriculture. In addition, Switzerland is promising Swiss companies will buy the “bio-cotton” to help fund Kyrgyz farmers during the transition period.

The program is being run by Swiss agronomists and has goals of converting 300 farmers and producing 400 tons of organic cotton a year. Currently around 20 participants have completed the course.

The timing is right for such a program according to Jens Engeli, a Swiss agronomist based in Jalal Abad, because many Kyrgyz farmers are still learning the basics of agriculture.

"With the land privatizations of 1996, workers on the collective farms were suddenly made independent farmers," says Engeli. "The problem was that workers previously were employed as mechanics or something specific and only the [collective farm] agronomist had the overall agricultural knowledge."

Not only do agronomists not have to fight a tradition of chemical usage they may be presenting the only feasible option for the Kyrgyz people. According to Engeli, getting hold of chemical fertilizers is unaffordable for most of the area’s farmers. One alternative is the creation of compost, which the Helvetas project encourages. Helvetas has also pushed farmers to adopt crop rotation to help the soil recover.

"Naturally, planting different crops means there is less cotton," Engeli said. "But that means farmers also have food for their own consumption."

Kyrgyzstan’s organic cotton production is unlikely to reach markets for another two years, largely because organic certification to European standards takes at least three years.

"Naturally, planting different crops means there is less cotton," Engeli said. "But that means farmers also have food for their own consumption."

Kyrgyzstan’s organic cotton production is unlikely to reach markets for another two years, largely because organic certification to European standards takes at least three years.

"Many farmers are very interested in the program," said Janibek Osmonaliev, the vice governor of Jalal Abad’s local authority. "Organic cotton definitely has potential," he added. "And if there is a demand for organic cotton, we will definitely fill it."

Most of that demand is expected to come from wealthy countries such as Switzerland, where a handful of importers have expressed an interest in the organic product.

However, currently, the only Swiss company that has confirmed its interest is the Winterthur-based textiles group, Paul Reinhart.

"We have been trading organic cotton for 13 years" said Ulrich Siegrist, a company spokesman. "But its overall share on the global market remains very marginal," he added.

Reinhart already buys organic cotton from Mali, in West Africa. Similarly the supermarket giant Migros as well as the Swiss clothing manufacturer, Switcher, source organic cotton from Africa. However, both firms have decided not to support the Kyrgyzstan project.

However Tobias Meier, a spokesman for Helvetas in Zurich, said he was confident the cotton would be sold.

"Even Nike and other big firms are interested in organic cotton," Meier said.