The privatization of the cotton seed market has left India’s desi (indigenous) species on the path to extinction. The farmer-led movements bringing back these native plants share a timely message: decolonizing cotton means learning from the rural lands and local hands where it naturally grows.
words by beatrice MURRAY-NAG
Ten years ago, in the Indian state of Karnataka, cotton farmers, government officials, and scientists were brought together for a much-anticipated meeting.
The event marked ten years since genetically modified Bt cotton seeds were introduced in India by the US biotechnology company Monsanto. Although touted by the government and the scientists for their high yields and pest resistance, this new variety of American cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) was causing concern among the farmers on the ground. United in their discontent, they shared stories of increased problems with minor pests, dependence on agricultural chemicals, and dwindling access to alternative seeds.
Krishna Prasad, director of the organic farmers’ association Sahaja Samrudha and elected organizer of the meeting, recalls one important interlocution that sparked his own foray from food into fiber seed sovereignty:
“One of the farmers, he got up and said, ‘What is this nonsense? Traditional cotton, Indian cotton, is the only solution to this problem. Bring it back. Start an Indian cotton growers’ association. Take my money.’”
“And just like that, he gave me a 100 rupee note.”
Fast forward to today, unrest among India’s cotton farmers has only amplified. The recent protests against three new laws—set to change the way crops are grown, priced, and stored—have highlighted the underlying vulnerability of farmers at the hands of both national legislation and private corporations. Their reaction stems from years spent at the end of a global supply chain which has historically put their livelihoods second to commercial interest.
Centuries of colonial and capitalist history are still surfacing on India’s soil. Nutrient-depleted fields and high farmer suicide rates, particularly in the country’s cotton growing belts, tell of an approach to agriculture has often overlooked the welfare of its lands and the hands who work them.
The consequences of the past on India’s cotton supply chain stretch far beyond its farms. A recent declaration from the Tamil Nadu Alliance, a coalition of over 100 grassroots organizations from the southern Indian state, calls for the fashion industry to take action on exploitation in its textile mills—particularly among adolescent girls and young women.
Fashion’s global ‘race to the bottom’ has seen brands pay increasingly less for their cotton, driving down the value of the labor associated with its making and forcing textile mills to strive for ever-lower production costs. It is the story of an industry that has forgotten the people involved at every step of its supply chain, in turn absolving brands of any accountability.
As workers on both the agriculture and apparel sides of India’s cotton industry suffer the effects of a colonial past coupled with increased industrialization, that first Karnataka farmer’s claim resonates once again:
“What is this nonsense? Traditional cotton, Indian cotton, is the only solution to this problem.”
Learning and Unlearning Cotton’s Complex History
Prasad’s decade-long journey into reviving Indian cotton with the farmers of Sahaja Samrudha began in the library of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur. There, he learned where the fiber really comes from; not just where it is farmed, but the soil it grows in, the seeds used in its cultivation, and the years of power and politics that have influenced what varieties are used to make clothing today, taking the decisions out of the hands of the six million mostly smallholder farmers who grow it.
Cotton, or Gossypium, has been grown in India for millennia. Over time, the country has lent its lands to all four species currently cultivated by man: the Old World cottons G. arboreum and G. herbaceum, which are known as the Indian or desi (indigenous) species, and the New World cottons G. barbadense and G. hirsutum—the latter of which is commonly referred to as American cotton.
Before the British introduced American cotton into India in 1790, the country’s native G. arboreum grew alongside G. herbaceum, which naturally spread eastward from Africa. The indigenous species adapted across its varied terrains, creating a rich biodiversity of local landraces that were fed by rainfall, and naturally resilient to local weeds. Their seeds could be saved each year, and their short-staple fibers were used to produce beautiful fabrics including the fine cotton muslin that was a testament to the talented hand spinners of the Coromandel coast, stretching from Bengal to Tamil Nadu.
In an effort to subdue this thriving textile economy, the British banned the export of finished Indian cotton fabrics to England. The East India Company began importing the raw materials to Europe, for which they paid much less than for the finished cloth. They wanted the cotton plants they discovered in the American colonies to be grown in India, too, due to their longer fibers more suited for spinning in Manchester’s industrial mills.
Yet when India regained independence in 1947, indigenous species still represented 97 percent of cotton grown in the country. However, the British did, quite literally, sow the seed of the beginning of the end for desi fibers. In the following years, India’s own government shaped the seed market in favor of American cotton (G. hirsutum) and commercial mills were established too. From the 1960s onward, it set out to industrialize Indian farming with modern technology in what is known as the Green Revolution.
“The British tried to kill the Indian cotton and the Indian textile industry. But they were not successful,” explains Prasad. “Then, in the name of the Green Revolution, Indian scientists worked with the American cotton and totally neglected Indian species. The percentage of Indian cotton started falling due to the introduction of high-yielding, hybrid varieties of G. hirsutum from the 1970s and 1980s onwards.” This was followed by Monstanto’s release of Bt cotton in India in 2002.
The ‘twisted trajectory’ of this genetically modified seed has since attracted study from national and international scientists. Yet since India’s independence, the percentage of American to desi cotton has inverted—according to Prasad, 96 percent of the country’s cotton is now grown using Monsanto’s seeds. They cannot be saved from year to year as traditional farmers once did; instead, they must be purchased new each season. Monsanto’s monopoly of the seed market saw scientists and universities give up on desi fibers, and most local traders no longer sell organic seed. “The seed production stopped,” he remembers. “So, even though some farmers still want to grow Indian cotton, seed material is a big problem—even today.”
I started unlearning everything I had learned in university or read in books, and slowly re-learning from the lands, rather than from the lab
A Mission to Bring Back Biodiversity
The loss of the indigenous seeds took with it the inherently regenerative ways of farming that came with their cultivation, posing its own problems for a warming planet.
“You talk about climate change, and we don’t want to lose this variety for tomorrow,” Prasad continues. “Indian cotton is the only answer that can grow in any harsh climate. Just imagine where the desi cotton grows in the Kutchi area of Gujarat: it is very hot, with saline soil, but it happily grows there.”
Reviving the plants doesn’t come without its complications. It means firstly sourcing the seeds, and secondly, convincing enough farmers to grow them. At the beginning of their journey, Prasad and Sahaja Samrudha contacted a handful of different farming organizations who sent a few desi seeds from their local regions. The responsibility of growing them was given to Nagappa Nimbegondi—a local farmer from the collective, based in the village of Makari, Karnataka. As an organic enthusiast, he was already growing indigenous millet and had become dissatisfied with Bt cotton, too. Together, with scientist and seed breeder Dr. Jayaprakesh Nidagundi, they carefully cultivated 23 varieties: Bengal Desi from West Bengal, Comilla from Meghalaya, Karunganni from Tamil Nadu, Waghad from Gujarat, Punduru from Andhra Pradesh, Jayadhar from Karnataka, and many more. The seeds were bred, multiplied, and shared with local farmers.
Working closely with Sahaja Samrudha, Swaminathan Vaithilingam—a biotechnologist who forayed into agriculture after he learned of the commercial pesticides and their link to cancer through his studies—became instrumental in the mission to source more native seeds. He began extensively researching and mapping out where different desi cotton varieties still exist. Over five years, he traveled around India collecting seeds for identification.
His personal experience is one of rewilding and deconstructing the existing system in order to build an alternative. “I started unlearning everything I had learned in university or read in books, and slowly re-learning from the lands, rather than from the lab,” he recalls. “And that was the turning point. I learnt from the processes which I could feel and see in the different terrains and different locations of India. We started exploring with indigenous paddy varieties, and then millet, maize, and slowly we ended up with cotton.”
Rebuilding a Rural Economy of Farmers, Spinners, and Weavers
With small groups of farmers beginning to grow the local seeds came the question of how to use their harvests. A mixed blessing of desi cotton is its defiant refusal to comply with the existing, industrial textile supply chain. Once ginned by hand, today’s technology cannot handle the coarser material, and its traditionally hand-spun short staple fibers do not work in the commercial spinning machines.
While there is a growing market for its medical and surgical use, the delicate hand-spun and hand-woven muslin of the past is little more than a distant memory. The hand ginning and spinning processes have fallen victim to the textile industry’s increased industrialization. But the last link is the weavers making khadi, the hand-woven cotton fiber that has become synonymous with India’s resistance to British rule thanks to the teachings of Gandhi.
Vaithilingam’s journey led him to found KASKOM, a small social enterprise dedicated to producing fabrics and even garments out of Karunganni cotton. He visited khadi weaving institutes across the country to understand if it was possible to make yarn on the traditional machines, but had little luck in finding a way to process the cotton. Instead, he began working with the South Indian Textile Research Association (SITRA) to understand if it was possible to gin and spin the fibers using what he calls a “third generation mill.” These machines are a step back from the high-tech “fifth and sixth generation mills” in action today but still have the adjustable settings needed to slow down the processing. In this way, he was able to successfully gin and partially spin the cotton to create rovings: long fiber bundles that can be spun by hand.
His learnings were shared with the Gandhigram Khadi & VIPC Trust in Dindugal who finish the yarn on an ambar charkha—a modern version of the traditional spinning wheel. The finished fabrics make light-weight, fully organic dhotis or shawls, and KASKOM has even created knitted polo shirts from the Karunganni cotton yarn.
Vaithilingam’s ethos goes back to Gandhi’s wisdom on the creation of self-sufficient, village-based economies. His vision is to build a system that sustains itself, in which the locally adapted, desi cotton varieties can bring financial benefit to the rural communities where they are grown. “If you take something from one place and process it somewhere else, the economy from the region where it has been cultivated suffers. If it is processed locally instead, value is added. It creates a circular rural economy where money rotates in that small radius.”
The indigenous cotton plants resiliently reinforce one key teaching: the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated. This time, the power must stay with the farmers
The First Steps Towards Scalable Seed Sovereignty
Replicating this rural system around India not only means sourcing enough seeds; it’s also about convincing other cotton growers to make the switch. With Bt cotton, farmers know where to sell it, and how much money it will make. They are also used to the higher yields it generates. But at the same time, an apparent lack of interest from farmers in desi cotton is discouraging scientists from working on new, higher yielding seed varieties. At first glance, it sounds like a cycle of dependency that is difficult to break.
Over the years, Prasad’s’s work with Sahaja Samrudha has been not only in maintaining the gene pool of the indigenous species but campaigning on a grassroots level to get others involved. He helped set up the Desi Cotton Growers Association, where seeds were distributed between farmers, as well as creating posters to encourage local growers to cultivate desi cotton, and even sharing his research in international publications.
Prasad also worked with Green Foundation and Dr. Vandana Shiva’s organization Navdanya to create community seed banks. But seed sovereignty means ensuring farmers have access to good seeds that will sustain them, either as food or financially. “The seeds in the seed banks were mixed, and there was no purification,” he explains. “Even today we have a community seed bank but many general farmers want quality seed. This is why started the Desi Seed Producers Company. It is India’s first farmer-produced organic seed company, owned by farmers. We are selling our seeds under the brand name Sahaja Seeds in an effort to produce quality seed in partnership with agriculture research stations.”
Meanwhile, a project led by FiBL (The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture), is carrying out similar work in different locations around India. Much like the very first Sahaja Samrudha farmer Nagappa Nimbegondi worked closely with breeder Dr. Jayaprakesh Nidagundi in order to naturally cultivate the desi species, FiBL’s ‘Seeding The Green Future’ project does the same. Its Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) methodology essentially empowers farmers to find their own solutions, re-training them in the art of seed saving and the traditional ways of on-farm breeding to achieve desirable qualities. Working at farmer level to empower individuals—especially women—to create their own quality seed, its ethos harks back to Vaithilingam’s early observations: reviving desi cotton means learning from the lands, not the lab. The indigenous cotton plants resiliently reinforce one key teaching: the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated. This time, the power must stay with the farmers—those who know the Earth better than anyone else.
A Farmer-First Future for Fashion and Textiles
Bringing back India’s indigenous fibers is an exercise in rewilding a supply chain that has lost its connection to the Earth.
“We need the public across the world to come forward to revive and safeguard this knowledge, heritage, and culture for future generations,” Prasad emphasizes. It’s a call to action for those looking to build a better tomorrow for India’s textile industry, rooted in the traditions of the past.
But bringing back desi fibers means changing the colonial and capitalistic ways of working and thinking, built on the exploitation of both people and natural resources. It’s about following the lead of the locals where these plants naturally grow, learning from the inherently sustainable practices that once defined their ways of life.
If fashion and textile companies are to play any part at all in their revival, they must not make the same mistakes again. This means completely inverting the power dynamics, placing farmers and artisans on top.
By following their teachings, could that first farmer’s projection into the future of desi cotton hold some truth for an industry that desperately needs to reconnect with its rural roots?
Special thanks to Krishna Prasad of Sahaja Samrudha, Swaminathan Vaithilingam of KASKOM, Dr. Jayaprakesh Nidagundi, Haneesh Katnawer of the Himalayan Hemp Cooperative, and Marzia Lanfranchi of Cotton Diaries for sharing their stories, research, and resources.