Global Farming and Its ‘50:50’ Moment

By Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton.

This article was first published by Devex on 14 June 2022.

News that the world has a “50:50” chance of exceeding the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark in the next five years is a wake-up call to the world. If you’re a cotton farmer struggling with drought in South Africa or with bollworm — which is linked to high rainfall — in Punjab, the prospect of a more erratic climate comes as unwelcome news.

As across the global agricultural landscape, the cotton industry has been investing heavily in building its climate resilience for some years now. Research into drought-tolerant breeds is continuing apace, for instance, as are tools for assessing and planning for future climate risks.

Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton by Jay Louvion.

Awareness is one thing, but the ability to act is another. An estimated 350 million people currently rely on cotton production for their livelihoods, half of whom face high or very high exposure to climate risk. Of these, most are smallholders, who, even if they wanted to act on climate change, lack the economic means or market incentives to do so.

Loud as the climate alarm bells ring and as much as global development agencies fret, transitioning agriculture onto a sustainable footing simply won’t happen without smallholder buy-in. As people who depend on the Earth’s productivity for their livelihoods, farmers have more incentive to steward the natural environment than anyone.

But the returns on climate-friendly agriculture need to pay clearly, quickly, and fairly. On the first two, there is an increasingly compelling case to be made. In India, for example, we have been able to show that over a season, Better Cotton Initiative farmers’ profits were 24% higher, while using a lower volume of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, than those not implementing more sustainable practices.

Compared to the vicissitudes of the market, multiyear purchasing guarantees from large buyers present a far more attractive prospect for agricultural producers looking to transition. In Brazil, for example, the U.S. commodity trader Bunge offers long-term financing to soybean producers that have robust anti-deforestation policies in place. However, opportunities for smallholders to negotiate such complex contractual arrangements is difficult, if not impossible.

The same hurdle presents itself with conventional carbon finance projects. Take carbon offsetting, for example. On paper, climate-smart farmers that promote carbon-reducing practices such as cover cropping and reducing tillage are well positioned to sell credits. Yet, proving the climate efficacy of such efforts is by no means straightforward. And, even if a farmer can, registering on a carbon credit marketplace such as Nori or even locating a relevant credit programme presents a challenge.

But imagine that wasn’t the case. Imagine, instead, a world in which development agencies, multilateral banks, finance institutions, commercial buyers, and philanthropists come together to devise funding mechanisms that meet the financing needs of small farmers — conservatively estimated at $240 billion per year.

Problem solved, right? Regrettably, no. Clear and quick as climate-positive farming returns may one day become, if they are not distributed fairly, then climate transition in agriculture is dead in the water before it gets going.

Of course, “fairness” is a subjective term. By any measure, however, ensuring it includes the 95% of farmers around the world who operate on less than 5 hectares has to be central. Likewise, guaranteeing equal access and opportunities within this grouping of some 570 million agricultural households is every bit as critical.

Gender injustice presents the starkest example. In many agricultural regions, especially in the global south, women farmers lack formal rights, such as land ownership, and struggle to access credit, training, and other key support mechanisms. This is despite exercising a significant influence over farming decisions. In India and Pakistan, for instance, the majority of cotton farm workers are female.

Producers, buyers, and other key players within the agricultural sector can and must seek ways of incorporating issues of social justice and inclusivity into their climate efforts. Without deliberative action, it simply won’t happen. Even then, our experience at Better Cotton, where we have been prioritizing gender equality for a number of years now, suggests change takes time.

Climate-positive farming is an agricultural issue, characterized by technological innovation and smart practices. It’s also a finance issue, for which a huge increase in capital investment is needed. But, at its heart, it is a justice issue. Bringing marginalized farmer groups into the fold is not only the right thing to do; it is a condition of effective climate action in agriculture.

 Modern industrial agriculture has seen yields spike. But its emphasis on high capital expenditure and fossil fuel-based inputs has also seen economic inequality and environmental damage become baked into the system. Responding to the urgent threat of climate change presents an opportunity to resolve these systemic failings.

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Interview With Just Style: Better Cotton Accelerates Rate of Change With New Impact Targets

In an exclusive interview with Just Style, Better Cotton’s Chief Operating Officer, Lena Staafgard, discusses Better Cotton’s 2030 strategy, why soil health is so important, and the future of the Better Cotton Growth and Innovation Fund.

“We’ve taken the next natural step which is accelerating the rate of change and deepening our impact. So, for the first time we’re setting impact targets for the Better Cotton community. By 2030 we will deliver, through collaborations with our partners and members, tangible change across a number of critical areas for agriculture.” – Lena Staafgard, COO, Better Cotton.

Watch the full interview below.

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Better Cotton’s COO Joins Marie Claire UK Sustainability Awards Judging Panel

Will your organisation be entering the Marie Claire UK Sustainability Awards this year? We’re excited that our COO Lena Staafgard will be joining the judging panel, made up of sustainability experts, business founders, thought leaders and activists!

Marie Claire UK’s second annual Sustainability Awards, is a celebration of the brands, organisations, and products that are genuinely implementing change and building a better tomorrow.

If you’re a business with purpose, a sustainable start-up shaping its business model to be as ethical as possible, or a company going the extra mile to positively impact our planet, Marie Claire wants to hear from you and celebrate your hard work. 

The entry deadline is midnight BST, Monday 25 April. Learn more.

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Is Regenerative Farming Just a Buzzword or a Blueprint For Restoring Soil Health?

By Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton. This opinion piece was first published by Reuters Events on 9 March 2022.

Irreversible ecosystem collapse is looming. If nothing is done to stop it, farming systems face a potentially catastrophic future, with severe implications for society the world over. 

This isn’t hyperbole. It’s the verdict of hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, as recently expressed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report. The writing is already on the wall. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over one third of the world’s soils are already degraded due to erosion, salinisation, compacting, acidification and chemical pollution. The result? An absence of the diversity of life that is integral to nourishing plants and crops. 

The core idea of regenerative agriculture is that farming can give back to, rather than take from, the soil and society.

As every farmer knows, healthy soil is the foundation of productive agriculture. Not only does it help cycle nutrients and filter water, it helps increase resilience to climate change by returning carbon to the ground. Cue the new buzzword on the block, “regenerative agriculture”. From one day to the next, the phrase seems to be everywhere, from the mouths of climate advocates to the speeches of leading politicians. Not since the “Green Revolution” of the 1950s has a farming-related buzzword gathered so much pace so quickly. As ever, critics have not been slow in coming forward. Their arguments follow conventional lines. Some say the term lacks rigour – “regenerative”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “carbon-smart”, all spawn from the same woolly basket. Others maintain that it’s an old idea rehashed in modern clothing. What were the earliest agriculturalists of the Fertile Crescent if not regenerative farmers? 

Such criticisms hide more than a little truth. The term regenerative agriculture can certainly mean different things to different people. And, yes, it does embrace concepts such as reduced tilling, crop rotation and cover crops that, in some cases, go back millennia. But to gripe about terminology is to miss the point. For one, the vagaries of definition are not nearly as great or problematic as some like to claim. The core idea of regenerative agriculture – namely, that farming can give back to, rather than take from, the soil and society – is hardly controversial. 

Fuzzy terminology can confuse consumers and, worse still, facilitate greenwashing.

Secondly, farming techniques vary enormously, meaning specific methodologies are always going to be hard to pin down. Practices pursued by farmers in west Africa, where the soil is notoriously infertile, for instance, will be different from those adopted in India, where pests and erratic weather are chief concerns.   

Thirdly, lack of complete consensus doesn’t necessarily lead to a complete lack of action. Take the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals; the specifics of each goal may not please everyone, but they please people enough to amass a huge amount of collective energy.    

In a similar vein, fresh terms can refresh our thinking. A decade ago, conversations about soil health and crop yields tended heavily towards the technical. A little less fertiliser here, a little more fallow time there. Today, with talk of regenerative agriculture increasingly widespread, extractivist agriculture itself is now on the table for debate. 

Of course, clear definitions are important. In their absence, misunderstandings can arise in practice that slow or even undermine the transition to more sustainable farming. Likewise, fuzzy terminology can confuse consumers and, worse still, facilitate greenwashing. In this regard, Textile Exchange’s recently published Landscape Analysis of regenerative agriculture marks a valuable and timely contribution. Built through dialogue at all levels of the farming community, it establishes an important set of basic principles that all major players can get behind.   

We especially welcome the report’s acknowledgement of benefits beyond carbon storage and emission reductions – important as both certainly are. Regenerative agriculture is not a one-trick pony. Improvements to soil health, habitat protection and water systems are just some of the other ancillary environmental benefits it delivers. 

We see the fact of regenerative agriculture now being on everyone’s lips as a huge positive.

Likewise, as an organisation committed to improving the livelihoods of millions of cotton producers, the emphasis on social outcomes is also to be applauded. As critical actors in the agricultural system, the voices of farmers and workers are fundamental to deciding how regenerative farming is framed and what outcomes it should aim for. 

To reiterate, we see the fact of regenerative agriculture now being on everyone’s lips as a huge positive. Not only is the unsustainability of today’s intensive, input-heavy farming increasingly well understood, so too is the contribution that regenerative models can make to turning this around. The challenge going forward is to turn growing awareness into on-the-ground action. The issues that regenerative farming seek to address are urgent. At Better Cotton, we’re big believers in continuous improvement. Rule number one? Get out of the blocks and get started. 

One key lesson we have learned over the last decade or so is that effective action won’t happen without an effective strategy to back it up. That’s why we encourage our participating field-level partners to establish a comprehensive soil management plan, spelling out tangible steps for improving soil biodiversity and preventing land degradation. Another crucial impetus to action is telling a convincing story. Farmers won’t transition from what they know on the basis of anecdotes and promises. Hard evidence is required. And, for that, investment in monitoring and data research is needed. 

Fashions, by nature, move on. In the case of regenerative agriculture, expect definitions to be refined and approaches to be revised. As a basic concept of how we ought to farm, however, it is firmly here to stay. Neither the planet nor farmers can afford it otherwise. 

Learn more about Better Cotton and soil health

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Understanding the Living Soil: There Really Is a Universe Beneath Our Feet  

By Karen Wynne, US Programme Coordinator, Better Cotton 
Karen is certified as a Soil Scientist and Classifier by the Soil Science Society of America.

You may think that below the ground there’s only dirt. Roots grow through it, and maybe an earthworm or two lives there. And do you ever wonder how plants get water and nutrients? Maybe they grab what they need from the soil and farmers top up the nutrients with fertilisers? Well, it may come as a surprise, but soil is quite a lot more complex than that. 

There’s literally a whole universe beneath our feet.  

The mineral soil, the silt, sand, and clay, even the roots, are home to all kinds of macro- and microorganisms (also known as the soil biome) that spend their time eating plant residues and each other, and in the process transform and store nutrients, and build soil structure. Just one teaspoon of healthy soil can contain more microorganisms than the total number of people on Earth. That’s amazing, right?  

In fact, soil is a complex and living system that we hardly understand. Soil scientists call the earthy world of microorganisms the ‘black box’. We’re still gaining knowledge of these microbes and how they interact with each other, their environment and plants. DNA sequencing and other amazing scientific advances have transformed our capacity to understand more about this underground world, and faster than ever before.  

Why it’s important to act on soil health now 

Healthy, biodiverse soil is fundamental to thriving crops, cycling nutrients, and filtering water. Soil can also increase our resilience to climate change by returning carbon to the ground, and buffering the impact of drought and flooding. But today, humans have a greater impact on the landscape than any other force. Our soils have become so degraded and eroded from industrial and agricultural development, that they no longer contain the diversity of life that’s integral to nourishing plants and crops. 

Within cotton farming, it’s vital that we encourage farmers to help create the best conditions for soil organisms to do their thing. That’s why healthy soils are a key focus for us at Better Cotton. We work closely with our on-the-ground partners and farmers to introduce effective, sustainable soil health practices. For example, maintaining continuous living roots creates a habitat to keep soil organisms active. Increasing the diversity of crops and cover crops builds diversity below ground too. Meanwhile, reducing tillage helps to protect the fragile underground ecosystem.  

We also collaborate with scientists and agronomists worldwide to help gather and share knowledge to encourage progress across the cotton sector. This year, to make further progress, we’ll be launching a 2030 soil health target as part of our 2030 Strategy

A thriving soil community 

Here are a few of my favourite members of the soil community. Let’s look at the valuable role they play in creating healthy soils. 

Earthworms are typically present in healthy soils. Darwin wrote the page-turner The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations of their Habits back in the 1800s. It was a bestseller. He tells us that earthworms can break down at least their weight’s worth of plant materials in a week, grinding them into a powder-like [compost], known as castings, that helps nourish the soil. Raising worms and farming their castings is a super low-tech system that produces stable organic fertiliser. This approach can easily be used on a small farm or even in an apartment. Worms don’t take up much space.

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) form mutually beneficial relationships with plants. They have an extensive system of branches called hyphae that insert themselves into the actual root cells, extending the plant’s access to water and nutrients, especially phosphorus, far beyond the roots’ reach. In return, the fungus gets sugars from the plant. AMF also produce glomalin, a kind of glue that holds soil particles together and provides an ideal habitat. One scientist in British Columbia has written a book on how trees communicate and share nutrients through their roots and the fungal network that connects them. It’s amazing how different species cooperate.

Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacteria found in soils, has been shown to work as an antidepressant. They produce a fat that seems to counter stress-related inflammation in our bodies that can lead to depression. The connection isn’t completely understood yet, but this little bacterium may well have the ability to counteract our natural stress responses. Maybe that explains why I am happier with a little soil under my fingernails. 

Dung Beetles are another helpful sign of healthy soils. They live in many different ecosystems on every continent, except Antarctica. The beetles feed on manure and, depending on the species, may transport it to their underground tunnel or roll it into a ball and bury it in the soil to lay eggs. And here’s a fun fact – they also orient themselves using the sun, moon and Milky Way as a guide. 

And finally, soil enemies… There are plenty of pests and pathogens in the soil too, and these can pose a risk to healthy crops and people. An unbalanced ecosystem can result in the loss of predators of these pests. For example, nematodes (microscopic roundworms) can be pests, but predatory nematodes such as the Steinernema species can attack grubs in the soil, including common cotton pests like pink bollworm and armyworm. A well balanced soil biome helps maintain these beneficial species of nematodes and prevent outbreaks of cotton pests. 

The good news is we have momentum. There’s more investment, more collaboration and outreach with farmers, and more communication on these issues. There are enough films about soil for a small film festival. There are a lot of smart and committed soil scientists out there asking all the right questions, farmers working together to share knowledge, and organisations like Better Cotton helping farmers to make changes without expensive lab tests or tools. 

More and more, the farming community is realising that to create the best environment for a very dynamic system, we need healthy soils. And when farmers use practices that support the soil biome, they can often save money by enabling natural systems to do the work. If we can continue this democratic and cooperative approach, we should really make a difference. 

For more information on how Better Cotton is promoting soil health on cotton farms, please read more here: 

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What Is Soil Health? Better Cotton Launches New Soil Health Series

Soil is quite literally the foundation of farming. Without it, we could neither grow cotton nor support our growing global population. We know first-hand at Better Cotton that improved soil health can enhance productivity and yields, which also directly improves farmer incomes. Not only that, but many soil health management practices are also climate change mitigation measures. These measures stand to make a big impact when considering that global soils contain more carbon than vegetation and the atmosphere combined.

That’s why soil health is one of five impact targets that we are developing at Better Cotton as part of our 2030 Strategy, and an area we will be focusing our attention on over the coming weeks.

In our new Soil Health Series, we’re exploring the wonderful and complex universe beneath our feet, looking at why good soil health is so important and what Better Cotton, our partners and Better Cotton Farmers are doing to support healthy soils and the future of sustainable agriculture.

To kick off the series, we outline the five key factors that impact soil health. Learn more in the video above.

Look out for more content over the coming weeks, or visit our soil health webpage to learn more.

Learn more about Better Cotton and soil health

Take a look at the 2030 Strategy

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Transformers Foundation Report Looks at Cotton Myths and Misinformation

A new report published by Transformers Foundation investigates the use – and misuse – of data on the sustainability of the cotton sector, and aims to equip brands, journalists, NGOs, consumers, suppliers and others with the skills and understanding to use data accurately and transparently.

The report, Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation debunks some of the commonly-shared ‘facts’ about cotton and textile production, such as the idea that cotton is an inherently ‘thirsty crop’, or the amount of water required to create a t-shirt. It also addresses commonly-cited claims about the use of pesticides in cotton farming. In both cases – water and pesticides – the report aims to provide current and accurate claims along with advice on how to use them without misleading audiences.

Damien Sanfilippo, Better Cotton’s Senior Director, Programmes contributed to the report and is quoted throughout:

“Everybody has an interest in data. And that’s good, because it means that everybody has an interest in sustainable development. But using data correctly is a skill. Right? And it needs to be done in a scientific manner.”

The authors end with a set of calls-to-action, including to:

  • Send in information and new data to the foundation
  • Make data about environmental impacts open-source and publicly available
  • Co-invest in filling in data gaps
  • Establish a global fashion fact-checker

Read the report here.

Transformers Foundation ‘represents the denim supply chain: from farmers and chemical suppliers to denim mills and jeans factories’.

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World Cotton Day – A Message from Better Cotton’s CEO

Alan McClay Headshot
Alan McClay, Better Cotton CEO

Today, on World Cotton Day, we are happy to be celebrating the farming communities around the world that provide us with this essential natural fibre.

The social and environmental challenges we came together to address in 2005, when Better Cotton was founded, are even more urgent today, and two of those challenges — climate change and gender equality — stand to be the key issues of our time. But there are also clear actions we can take to solve them. 

When we look at climate change, we see the scale of the task ahead. At Better Cotton, we are drawing up our own climate change strategy to help farmers deal with these painful effects. Importantly, the strategy will also address the cotton sector’s contribution to climate change, which The Carbon Trust estimates at 220 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. The good news is that the technologies and practices to address these issues are already there — we only need to put them in place.

Cotton and climate change – an illustration from India

Photo Credit: BCI/Florian Lang Location: Surendranagar, Gujarat, India. 2018. Description: BCI Lead Farmer Vinodbhai Patel (48) in his field. While many farmers are burning the weed stubble, which is left on the field, Vinoodbhai is leaving the remaining stalks. The stalks will later get ploughed into the earth to increase the biomass in the soil.

At Better Cotton, we’ve witnessed the disruption that climate change brings first-hand. In Gujarat, India, Better Cotton Farmer Vinodbhai Patel struggled for years with low, irregular rainfall, poor soil quality and pest infestations on his cotton farm in the village of Haripar. But without access to knowledge, resources or capital, he, along with many other smallholder farmers in his region, relied partially on government subsidies for conventional fertilisers, as well as credit from local shopkeepers to buy traditional agro-chemical products. Over time, these products only degraded the soil further, making it harder to grow healthy plants.

Vinodbhai now uses exclusively biological fertilisers and pesticides to produce cotton on his six-hectare farm — and he is encouraging his peers to do the same. By managing insect-pests using ingredients sourced from nature — at no cost to him — and planting his cotton plants more densely, by 2018, he had reduced his pesticide costs by 80% compared to the 2015-2016 growing season, while increasing his overall production by over 100% and his profit by 200%.  

The potential for change becomes even greater when we factor women into the equation. There’s mounting evidence that shows the relationship between gender equality and climate change adaptation. In other words, we are seeing that when women’s voices are elevated, they make decisions that benefit everyone, including driving the adoption of more sustainable practices.

Gender Equality – an illustration from Pakistan

Photo Credit: BCI/Khaula Jamil. Location: Vehari District, Punjab, Pakistan, 2018. Description: Almas Parveen, BCI Farmer and Field Facilitator, delivering a BCI training session to BCI Farmers and Farm-workers in the same Learning Group (LG). Almas is discussing how to select the correct cotton seed.

Almas Parveen, a cotton farmer in the Vehari district of Punjab, Pakistan is familiar with these struggles. In her corner of rural Pakistan, entrenched gender roles mean women often have little opportunity to influence farming practices or business decisions, and female cotton workers are often restricted to low paid, manual tasks, with less job security than men.

Almas, however, was always determined to overcome these norms. Since 2009, she’s been running her family’s nine-hectare cotton farm herself. While that alone was remarkable, her motivation didn’t stop there. With support from our Implementing Partner in Pakistan, Almas became a Better Cotton Field Facilitator to enable other farmers — both men and women — to learn and benefit from sustainable farming techniques. At first, Almas’ faced opposition from members of her community, but in time, the farmers’ perceptions changed as her technical knowledge and sound advice resulted in tangible benefits on their farms. In 2018, Almas increased her yields by 18% and her profits by 23% compared to the previous year. She also achieved a 35% reduction in pesticide use. In the 2017-18 season, the average Better Cotton Farmer in Pakistan increased their yields by 15%, and reduced their pesticide use by 17%, in comparison to non-Better Cotton Farmers.

The issues of climate change and gender equality serve as powerful lenses with which to view the current state of the cotton sector. They show us that our vision of a sustainable world, where cotton farmers and workers know how to cope — with threats to the environment, low productivity and even limiting societal norms — is within reach. They also show us that a new generation of cotton farming communities will be able to make a decent living, have a strong voice in the supply chain and meet growing consumer demand for more sustainable cotton. 

The bottom line is that transforming the cotton sector is not the work of one organisation alone. So, on this World Cotton Day, as we all take this time to listen and learn from each other, reflecting on the importance and role of cotton around the world, I’d like to encourage us to band together and leverage our resources and networks.

Together, we can deepen our impact and catalyse systemic change. Together, we can make the transformation to a sustainable cotton sector — and world — a reality.

Alan McClay

CEO, Better Cotton

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Better Cotton and Regenerative Agriculture: Our Approach

By Chelsea Reinhardt, Director, Standards & Assurance

Regenerative agriculture seems to be on everyone’s radar these days. From new regenerative agriculture certifications to sourcing commitments from big brands, the concept is gaining traction.  

Chelsea Reinhardt

Many regenerative practices are already woven into the Better Cotton Standard System, and as the research and conversations around regenerative agriculture evolve, we are working to deepen our impact along with it. 

Below, we discuss regenerative agriculture as it relates to Better Cotton — from how we define it to our approach moving forward. 

What is Regenerative Agriculture? 

While there is currently no universally accepted definition of regenerative agriculture, it is generally related to practices that promote soil health and restore organic carbon in the soil. These practices may include reducing tilling (no-till or low-till), use of cover crops, complex crop rotation, rotating livestock with crops and avoiding or minimising the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides — practices that have the potential to turn agricultural soil into a net carbon sink.  

Regenerative Agriculture in the Better Cotton Standard  

We don’t currently use the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ in the Better Cotton Standard. However, what is considered regenerative agriculture today is aligned with many of the sustainable farming practices that form the basis of our Standard. Our on-the-ground Implementing Partners in 23 countries around the world support farmers to implement these practices, which can be found throughout the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria. 

Regenerative Agriculture in the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria

  • Principle 3 on Soil Health: Better Cotton Farmers are required to implement a multi-year soil management plan which covers enhancing soil structure, soil fertility and improving nutrient cycling, which includes processes such as breaking down of organic matter and soil respiration that facilitates uptake of soil nutrients like carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous. Farmers are encouraged and supported to identify practices that are most appropriate to their local context. These typically include cover cropping, crop rotation, mulching and other regenerative methods.  
  • Principle 4 on Biodiversity and Land Use: Better Cotton Farmers must adopt a biodiversity management plan which explicitly encourages crop rotation and the restoration of degraded areas. 
  • Other Better Cotton Principles: Due to the interconnected nature of sustainable farming practices, regenerative agriculture practices are embedded within other principles as well. For example, principle one on crop protection introduces an Integrated Pest Management Programme to help farmers reduce their pesticide use and principle two on water stewardship details soil moisture practices such as mulching and cover cropping. 

How We’re Diving Deeper into Regenerative Agriculture for Greater Impact 

While we recognise the value of regenerative agriculture practices and support the growing awareness of the role of farming in combatting climate change, we are cautious about making promises about soil carbon contributions while the science in this area is still evolving. For example, although no-till agriculture has been shown to improve carbon sequestration in the short term in many cases, in the long term, the outcomes are less certain. Some studies have shown that even periodic ploughing can reverse years of carbon benefits. Other research points to mixed impacts on soil organic carbon, depending on the content and depth of the soil layer. 

Regardless of the long-term carbon benefits of regenerative agriculture, we will continue to focus on supporting farmers to improve their soil health. This is crucial to enhance long-term soil fertility, reduce erosion and adapt to climate change. It also plays a key role in improving yields and livelihoods for farming communities. 

What’s Next

Climate-smart agriculture practices will play a more prominent role in the Better Cotton Standard after an upcoming revision of the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria. They will also feature strongly in our 2030 Strategy and connected climate change strategy, which will cover how Better Cotton Farmers and communities can become more resilient by mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, reducing carbon emissions and measuring their progress. 

An approach of continuous improvement is at the heart of both regenerative agriculture and our 2030 Strategy. To that end, we are currently in the process of finalising outcome targets and associated indicators to act as drivers of change for Better Cotton Farmers. The outcome target issue areas will likely include climate change mitigation and soil health. These targets will enable progress to be measured towards the Better Cotton mission and incentivise farmers to find new ways to enrich the environment in and around their farms.  

Stay tuned — we will be sharing more information on these targets and launching our 2030 Strategy at the end of the year.  

Learn more about how the Better Cotton Standard addresses soil health and climate change mitigation and adaptation

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Learn More About Better Cotton & Brazil in Our New Q&A

As one of the world’s largest producers, and consumers, of cotton fibre, Brazil is a key country for BCI to continue to improve the uptake and flow of Better Cotton across the supply chain. We have published this series of questions and answers below to provide clarity on a variety of aspects of BCI’s programme in Brazil.

[expand title=”How is Better Cotton licensed in Brazil?”]ABRAPA (Associa√ß√£o Brasileira dos Produtores de Algod√£o) – the Brazilian Association of Cotton Producers – is our Strategic Partner in Brazil, and Better Cotton from Brazil is licensed under ABRAPA’s ABR Protocol. This protocol is successfully benchmarked against the Better Cotton Standard System.

Benchmarking is a formal process for comparing, calibrating and conferring one-way recognition of other credible cotton sustainability standard systems. This recognition enables farmers who comply with a successfully benchmarked standard system to market Better Cotton.[/expand]

[expand title=”Why is BCI, through ABRAPA, only working with large farms in Brazil?”]The vast majority of cotton farms in Brazil are medium and large farms, and the benchmarked ABR Protocol currently applies only to these farms. The average size of cotton cultivation on ABR-BCI farms in the 2019/2020 season was 3,498 hectares.

However, BCI and ABRAPA acknowledge the need to work with cotton growing smallholders in Brazil. In 2019, planning began for trainings of smallholders in Minas Gerais as part of a BCI licensing pilot. These were scheduled for March 2020 but were postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once launched, ABRAPA is looking at replicating this pilot in the state of Bahia. ABRAPA’s state-based member associations already work with smallholders in the Catuti region of Minas Gerais, and the Guanambi region of Bahia.


[expand title=”What links can be drawn between issues present in soy, such as deforestation and land conversion, and cotton production in Brazil?”]It is not BCI’s role or responsibility to speak about issues related to soy or other crops in Brazil – our goal at BCI is to transform cotton production. However, we can speak about how the Better Cotton Standard System (BCSS)and by extension ABR-BCI licensed farmsaddresses sustainability issues in cotton farming that are often also cited in soy production, such as pesticide use, land use conversion and deforestation. See the questions and answers below for more details.[/expand]

[expand title=”Does the Better Cotton Standard System address land conversion and deforestation issues in Brazil?”]

Yes. We recognise the value of social and environmental elements in a landscape and that these values must not be lost in the process of producing cotton. We also recognise that land use change comes with increased risks to biodiversity and other resources used by local people. That’s why we require BCI farmers to complete a High Conservation Value (HCV) assessment to identify, maintain and monitor those values early on so that they are not damaged by expanding cotton operations. This is part of our HCV approach that works to ensure farmers are respecting the rights of local communities, indigenous people and the environment.

This approach is outlined in Better Cotton Principles & Criteria 4.2.1 and 4.2.2 that all BCI farmers around the world, including ABR–BCI licensed farmers, must follow.

Beyond our criteria, ABR certification requires compliance with Brazilian environmental legislation. This means that, according to Brazilian law, even growers who only plant a small area of cotton must preserve 20-80% of the property. The percentage preserved depends on the biome in which the farm is located. For example, if a property is located in the Amazon biome, it must preserve 80% of its area. Brazil is made up of six biomes with different characteristics: Amazon, Caatinga, Cerrado (savanna), Atlantic Forest, Pampa and Pantanal.

All external audits of ABR-BCI farms consider the legislation of the biome in which the farm is located, and, most importantly, the licensing process is for the farm as a whole and not just for the area under cotton cultivation. Through the ABR audit and licensing process, all farms are visited annually. It should also be noted that no ABR-BCI licensed cotton farm is located in the legally-defined Amazon region.


[expand title=”What is the status of pesticide use in Brazilian cotton production?”]

In a tropical climate with intense pest pressure (boll weevil and white fly, in particular),a key challenge for Brazilian farmers is how to address the phase-out of harmful pesticides, as they work to reduce their overall pesticide use. Through our Strategic Partner, ABRAPA, we are helping cotton farmers in Brazil do this and find alternative methods for dealing with pests.

This starts with ABRAPA’s ABR Protocol which must uphold BCI’s current Better Cotton Principles and Criteria, including our increasingly stringent approach to the phase out of “Highly Hazardous Pesticides’, introduced in 2018 as part of a formal BCI Standard revision.

The Better Cotton Principle on Crop Protection requires that any pesticides listed under Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions and the Montreal protocol are not used. It also requires producers to phase out the use of any pesticide active ingredients and formulations that are known or presumed to be extremely or highly hazardous (acute toxicity) and carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic as per World Health Organization (WHO) and Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) classification. ABRAPAis currently updating its standard to align with these recent BCI requirements and supporting farmers as they seek viable alternatives for crop protection.

ABRAPA has set up five biological control factories, operated in collaboration with its state partners, to produce pest control products that are alternatives to more toxic offerings. The factories produce methods of pest control like natural enemies and entomopathogens (biological control with entomopathogens can be defined as the use of fungi, viruses and bacteria). One factory is located in Minas Gerais, one is in Goi√°s and three are in Mato Grosso, the largest cotton-producing state.


[expand title=”How did the Better Cotton Fast Track Programme (BCFTP), or its successor, the Better Cotton Growth and Innovation Fund (GIF) contribute to the development and benchmarking of ABRAPA’s ABR Protocol?”]The development of the ABR standard was undertaken by ABRAPA without funding from BCI. Better Cotton Fast Track Programme (BCFTP) funding was used for a variety of activities, such as training materials, capacity building for ABRAPA and farmers on the Better Cotton Standard System (BCSS), worker training on decent work, and alignment of ABRAPA and BCI’s chain of custody system.[/expand]

[expand title=”Does BCI say Better Cotton from Brazil is “sustainable’, “better’ or “preferred’? Is Brazil “the largest producer of sustainable cotton’?”]

“Better Cotton’ means cotton that is better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future. BCI Farmers that produce “Better Cotton’ adhere to the seven principles defined in the BCIPrinciples & Criteria, including minimising the harmful impact of crop protection practices, enhancing biodiversity, using land responsibly, promoting decent work and promoting water stewardship. Sustainability is also a journey that doesn’t end when a farm is licensed – that’s why BCI Farmers commit to participating in a continuous cycle of learning and improvement.

BCI is committed to only making claims that are credible and able to be substantiated, which is why we describe Better Cotton as ‘more sustainable’ than conventionally grown cotton rather than stating that it is categorically “sustainable’. We are intentional and consistent across our communications about using “more sustainable’ in the place of “sustainable’ because this is more accurate and better captures the ethos of our approach.

Describing Brazil as “the largest producer of sustainable cotton’ is not in line with our position. We do say, however, that Brazil is the largest producer of Better Cotton because this is true, and we are proud of our partnership.


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