Jaskiran Warrik

Cotton is considered a convenient crop by farmers in India as the flexibility it offers with regard to storage, market volatility, and supply chain connectivity cannot be matched by other crops. This might even be one of the reasons why India continues to reign as the leading producer of cotton globally. In recent years, stakeholders in the cotton value chain have adopted various technologies that empower them to tackle diverse challenges and tap into favourable opportunities. Meanwhile, cotton producers are benefiting from several programmes that facilitate them with information, technologies and services to scale sustainable cotton production. Our thought leader for the day shares several valuable insights into the cotton industry: the impact of digital technologies, recent efforts being made to adequately enable cotton growers, the present and future of organic cotton, the impact of COVID on the way the cotton value chain operates, and much more. Read on to know the details.
In Conversation With

Jaskiran Warrik

As the Director, South Asia, for the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), Jaskiran Warrik currently leads the organisation’s operations in India while working with partners closely to collaborate with 24,000 organic farmers under OCA’s Farmer Engagement and Development (FED) Programme. With over a decade’s experience in the sustainability sector, she has witnessed first-hand how businesses can have a positive impact on people and the planet, and that is how she strives to create value by connecting with the diverse stakeholders of sectors in the agri space. Her career in the agri-industry began as a happy accident when she was looking for her next challenge. When offered a job in sustainable agriculture, she took the leap and never looked back since.
She has become increasingly passionate about promoting a holistic approach to the sustainable agro-commodities sector. Now, she brings this perspective to OCA where she is driven forward by understanding and acting on the practical needs of sector stakeholders – finding the common ground, as it were. “Sustainability has often been marketed as a competitive advantage for different industries till now and yet I firmly believe that the positive impact created by companies in sustainably conducting their businesses is the competitive advantage of the future,” says Ms Jaskiran. Looking back at some of her significant achievements in her career, she recollects being brought on board by OCA in 2017 to launch their operations in India with 1,700 organic cotton farmers. Today, the same programme works with over 20,000 organic cotton farmers. “I am proud of the partnerships and collaborations we have built to be able to scale up so magnificently in the short time we’ve been working in India. We have now set our sights on expanding to more geographies and I’m excited to see us grow and scale,” she adds.

The cotton crop’s importance has notably increased in the last 15 years with extensive expansion in terms of the planted area and output. Over the same period, increased digitalisation has enabled producers globally to increase their productivity levels. What has been the impact of digital technologies in the cotton industry from your experience?

Jaskiran Warrik: In India, cotton is a convenient crop – it offers farmers certain flexibility that other food crops do not. Storage, market volatility, and supply chain connectivity make cotton attractive to farmers. In the past five years, agri-tech has really stepped up its game. Technology like the SmartFarm app has allowed us to track data points, which are crucial to proving the business case for the organic cotton sector. In addition to this, telecommunication has been the game-changer for farmers. Once cut out from all real-time information outside their rural communities, farmers can now get access to the latest agricultural information with one click. We still have some ways to go in developing the infrastructure for good connectivity in rural areas as well as data – there is still a lot to be done to ensure farmers can access and analyse the data available for their own betterment.

Organic farming is now an expanding economic sector globally. How are different stakeholders in the sector working with brands, suppliers, and retailers to provide organic farmers with secure, diverse, and improved means to income?

Jaskiran Warrik: Through the Farmer Engagement and Development (FED) Programme, OCA’s partners have taken tangible action — implementing purchase commitments in a direct-to-farm sourcing model, delivering premium payments to farmers, and addressing practical challenges in the supply chain. The implementation of the FED Programme is rooted in the principle of continuous improvement enabling accelerated adaptation and adoption of best practices; both of which are needed to help the sector to meet collective goals. As a global platform, OCA brings together those who grow, supply and buy organic cotton and we work together to create the conditions for this fibre to thrive. Our global collective of brands, retailers, supply chain partners, farm groups, civil society organisations, philanthropic foundations and academics are united in their efforts to safeguard the future of organic cotton. OCA Contributors know that for organic cotton to deliver positive impact at scale, we need to shift from competitive advantage to a common agenda, from individual action to collective investment. Thereby every dollar invested in our programmes improves farmer profitability and prosperity, by creating a secure market for farmers and delivering best practices at farm level.

Going forward a step from organic and sustainable farming, regenerative agriculture is making headway within the agri-community as a way to improve soil health and thereby enhance the entire ecosystem. How have agricultural practices for cotton evolved in recent years to ensure stronger, healthier crops as well as a better livelihood for farmers?

Jaskiran Warrik: Although regen agriculture is promoted as the next step, in my opinion, there is still a lot to be done even within the existing sustainability frameworks. If you come to the core of the issues, each standard, old or new, is trying to accomplish one main thing, and that is a positive impact. However, how they go about it is different. Organic cotton production draws on solutions offered by practical experience, accumulated wisdom, and traditional and indigenous knowledge, tested by time and forward-looking. To rise to the challenge of food and clothing production in the 21st century, the organic sector embraces innovation and technology within a holistic, nature-based agricultural system that benefits the environment and society. Examples of innovation in organic cotton production include the use of technology to check soil nutrient balances and to monitor pests and diseases. Other opportunities include the systematic gathering and recording of indigenous farming knowledge, investment in organic plant breeding, the use of precision agriculture or smart farming methods to increase yield, and online systems for compliance, verification and authenticity. At OCA, we support innovation in organic cotton production; e.g., by investing in the development of improved non-GM cotton cultivars that benefit organic farmers and that are also resilient to climate change, and the use of blockchain technology to support value chain traceability.

Adapting to the new normal this year resulted in rethinking processes to ensure a smooth flow of operations, despite pandemic-related challenges. What do you think has changed in the way the cotton value chain operates?

Jaskiran Warrik: Supply chains of the post-COVID era are set to change — transparency, digitalisation, and nearshoring have become buzzwords for strengthening the way brands and retailers source products. Nonetheless, how this impacts the recovery of the sector post-COVID remains to be seen. When COVID 19 lockdowns were announced in several parts of the world including in India, I don’t think we were prepared for the magnitude of what was being asked of us or to consider the impact beyond the next few days. I know that the long-term impact of COVID on the sector is yet to be identified in some cases — it might be a few years before the dust settles down entirely. What we do know from OCA’s FED work mainly on farm level sourcing is that:
  • Audits and certifications will need to be flexible and heavily dependent on technology. With digitisation high on the agenda, the pandemic has only accelerated the need to push digital innovations through and many of our partners are adjusting to find a balance between rigour and pragmatism this year. In the future, digital solutions we apply now may become permanent fixtures leaving some practices redundant.
  • Labour shortage was and continues to remain a big challenge not just in India but globally. This will impact harvesting and intercultural activities and influence the selection of crops grown by farmers. Perishable agro-commodities that are labour intensive may see a decrease in supply with farmers looking to grow crops that have easy market access and can also be stored for longer periods to weather price fluctuations.
  • Capacity-building projects at farms are and will be challenging to deliver. In India alone, we are moving much of the work online, but the rural sector is not so well connected or prepared to move to digital ways of working quite yet. Additionally, we’ve seen that changes in policies are not translating well in this time of uncertainty.
The silver lining for us was that we received great support from all our partners. We have seen that the sector partnerships and collaborations have been strengthened and consolidated to manage and tackle COVID from a unified front.

What are three significant changes that you would like to see in the organic cotton industry in the near future?

Jaskiran Warrik: The organic cotton sector is set on the road to recovery reeling under the impacts of COVID-19 and it isn’t going to be easy. In this time, it’s critical that we continue to:
  • Safeguard the farmer business case. The enthusiasm for a harmonised direct-to-farm approach has grown since we launched our FED Programme and continues to accelerate. At OCA, I know that we must develop our programmes further to deliver on a common agenda for the sector. However, I also know that we need more than a commodity centric approach and more work needs to be done to explore the business case for farmers, beyond just cotton.
  • Protect the interests of the supply chain especially workers. To do so, we need to reinforce the structures that support essential activities. The long-term impacts of coronavirus will look to erode the infrastructure that supports services like seed availability, labour welfare and more. At OCA, we encourage our Contributors to invest in essential fields like access to non-GM seed, increasing uptake of organic cotton, and other initiatives that support the most vulnerable players in the supply chain.
  • Focus on impact — continuous improvement, not overnight sensation. We can and should begin by reaffirming our commitment to the sector by continuing to grow, sell, and buy organic. It is up to us to support the sector by the choices we make.

Lastly, what inspires you to work continuously in this sector?

Jaskiran Warrik: I love what I do so that helps but, to be completely transparent, I am awed and inspired by the hard work and resilience of farming communities. Agriculture has remained irreplaceable through the centuries and I value the work farmers do. My ambition is to protect their interest whilst preserving world we live in. At OCA, my mission is to make us an organisation that empowers farmers so they can choose what is best for them, their land and, ultimately, all of us.

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