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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Sustainable Cotton Reaches 22% of Global Production as 2.3 Million Farmers Receive Training on Improved Agricultural Practices

 
Today, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) launched its 2019 Annual Report. In the report, BCI shares that Better Cotton – cotton produced by licensed BCI Farmers in line with the initiative’s Better Cotton Principles and Criteria – now accounts for 22% of global cotton production*.

In the 2018-19 cotton season, together with expert on-the-ground Implementing Partners and with support from more than 1,800 members, BCI provided training on more sustainable agricultural practices to 2.3 million cotton farmers – 2.1 million gained a license to sell Better Cotton. This drove the volume of more sustainably produced cotton available on the global market to a new level.

At the opposite end of the supply chain, BCI’s Retailer and Brand Members passed a significant milestoneat the end of 2019, sourcing more than 1.5 million metric tonnes of Better Cotton ¬≠– a record for BCI. That’s a 40% increase on 2018 and sends a clear signal to the market that Better Cotton is becoming a sustainable mainstream commodity. Better Cotton uptake now accounts for 6% of global cotton production.

It is particularly pleasing to share the progress BCI is making, thanks to the concerted efforts of our members, partners and other stakeholders, towards our 2020 targets. With two more cotton seasons (2019-20 and 2020-21) within which to make further advances at field level, we are committed to not only continuing to deliver beneficial change at field level, but also to learning from the experience and adapting to become more effective. We do not yet know how close we will come to our 2020 targets, and we are still assessing how the current Covid-19 pandemic will impact our efforts. But one thing is certain, we have made significant and undeniable progress over the past 10 years, and there are many successes to celebrate.” – Alan McClay, CEO, BCI.

2019 Report Highlights

  • Better Cotton was grown in 23 countries in the 2018-19 cotton season.
  • Licensed BCI Farmers produced 5.6 million metric tonnes of Better Cotton. That is enough cotton to make approximately 8 billion pairs of jeans, a pair each for every person in the world.
  • Better Cotton now accounts for 22% of global cotton production.
  • BCI and its 76 field-level partners delivered training and support to a total of 2.3 million farmers.
  • 2.1 million cotton farmers received a BCI license to sell their cotton as Better Cotton – 99% are smallholders farming on less than 20 hectares.
  • BCI Retailer and Brand Members sourced 1.5 million metric tonnes of cotton as Better Cotton in 2019 – a record volume.
  • Uptake of Better Cotton now accounts for 6% of global cotton production.
  • BCI welcomed more than 400 new members in 2019.
  • By the end of the year, BCI had 1,842 members across five membership categories, a 29% increase on 2018.

Access the interactive BCI 2019 Annual Report to learn more about our successes, challenges and the progress we are making towards our 2020 targets.

*The percentage has been calculated using ICAC’s 2019 global production figures.

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