Celebrating Soil on Earth Day 2022

The earth beneath our feet is a complex and living system. Just one teaspoon of healthy soil can contain more microorganisms than the total number of people on the planet.

Healthy soil is the starting point for farm productivity and sustainability. Without it, we could neither grow cotton nor support our growing global population. However, it is also often the most neglected and under-appreciated resource in farming.

On #EarthDay2022, we are focusing on soil health and the inspiring work that is happening on the ground to improve soil health in cotton farming.

What is soil health and why does it matter?

Learn more from our soil health experts

Farmer insights

Sabari Jagan Valvi joined the Better Cotton and Lupin Human Welfare And Research Foundation programme in India three years ago.

By adopting more sustainable farming practices such as intercropping and using vermicompost and neem extract, Sabari has witnessed an improvement in soil health on her farm and has managed to reduce her costs.

“This year I have sown cotton over two acres following the practices promoted by Better Cotton. Through single seed sowing and seed treatment, I managed to save 50% of the cost of sowing this season.” – Sabari Jagan Valvi, Better Cotton Farmer.

Join the discussion

At this year’s Better Cotton Conference – taking place in Malmö, Sweden and online on 22-23 June – we’ll be joined by partners and members to explore how regenerative agriculture can help to tackle climate change and much more.

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Improving Soil Health with Cotton Farmers in India

Meet Better Cotton Farmer Sabari Jagan Valvi from India as she talks about her experience implementing new sustainable farming practices.

Sabari joined the Better Cotton and Lupin Foundation programme three years ago. By adopting new sustainable practices in line with the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria such as intercropping, vermicompost and neem extract, Sabari has witnessed an improvement in soil health and managed to reduce her costs.

“This year I have sown cotton over 2 acres following the practices promoted by Better Cotton. Through single seed sowing and seed treatment, I managed to save 50% of the cost of sowing this season.”

Soil health is a key target for us at Better Cotton and is part of our 2030 Strategy, learn more at: https://bettercotton.org/field-level-results-impact/key-sustainability-issues/soil-health-cotton-farming/

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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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Supporting Farmers in Mali to Improve Soil Health  

By Lisa Barratt, Africa Operations Manager and Abdoul Aziz Yanogo West Africa Regional Managerboth Better Cotton.

Healthy soils are vital to growing flourishing cotton crops and improving livelihoods. At Better Cotton we work closely with partners on the ground to help cotton farming communities adopt better soil health practices. We develop a full understanding of local challenges and aim for practical, effective and affordable techniques, so that they’re accessible to smallholders. Together, we focus on continuously raising farmers’ yields and lowering their environmental impacts by safeguarding the future of their soils. 

In 2021, the Better Cotton Mali Team undertook one such project, working with our longstanding Implementing Partner, Compagnie Malienne pour le Développement des Textiles (CMDT), to help demonstrate the impact of sustainable soil management techniques to Better Cotton Farmers. We often find that it helps farmers to see the benefits of a certain technique before they try it on their own farm, so they can see that it works. That’s why we bring it to life for them through demonstration plots in their communities, where they can see exactly how improving soil health, for example, leads to healthier, more resilient crops. 

Lisa Barratt & Abdoul Aziz Yanogo

Understanding Soil Health Challenges in Mali 

Cotton is Mali’s principal crop and second largest export. However, cotton farmers in Mali face multiple challenges, including irregular weather and shorter growing seasons, fluctuating prices and high input costs, and poor soil health. In particular, the soils are low in organic matter, so the plants aren’t benefitting from the nutrients inherent to healthy, thriving, biodiverse soils. They’re also low in the vital minerals all plants need like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. 

Action on the Ground 

Our aim was to raise awareness of local soil heath challenges, explain the benefit of sustainable practices, and work together with farmers to implement action plans, based on practical demonstrations and field-based support. We also supported soil testing as an important means of checking soil health to help inform any fertilisation efforts. 

This began with understanding how farmers currently fertilised their fields. We interviewed 120 farmers to get an idea of prevalent practices. We also identified four good demonstration plots and sent soil samples for laboratory analysis. Among our findings, we noticed that farmers were applying the same level of mineral fertilisers to all their fields (despite the different needs of the soil), the organic matter they were adding wasn’t enough in relation to the soil’s needs, and they weren’t including enough legumes when rotating crops. 

We adapted our training to suit their needs, starting with training those CDMT representatives who’d be helping farmers on the ground. From there, we were ready to develop a three-year plan that would really help farmers move forward and grow healthier crops. The goals of the plan include reducing the use of synthetic fertilisers and improving soil organic matter, which assists in improving soil moisture retention.  

So what did we recommend? 

All the practices we advised were designed to restore, maintain, and monitor soil fertility. For example, in addition to taking soil samples and having them analysed, we recommended using well-decomposed organic manure, which farmers could get from local cattle farmers or their own cattle. We also recommended adding mineral fertilisers to ensure the right levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, all vital for healthy crop growth. To help preserve the soil’s natural structure, promote moisture retention and reduce erosion, we also proposed reducing the frequency and depth of tillage (whereby farmers churn up the soil to prepare the fields for sowing). Instead, we suggested that farmers use dry hoeing and dry scraping to help the soil retain its structure.  

Cotton plot with a stone border to protect the field against water erosion
Use of organic manure on cotton plot before ploughing

To further prevent erosion, we suggested ploughing along the contour lines or forming ridges perpendicular to the slope top help retain rainwater in the field. And to improve levels of organic matter in the soil, we integrated woody legumes such as mimosa and acacia, which can be used as mulch to promote better soil once they’re harvested. This is fundamental to improving soil fertility. And to give the soil a rest from growing one type of crop exclusively, we recommended a soil rotation system, including these legumes.  

What next? 

As we establish the demonstration plots in 2022, we’ll keep supporting farmers throughout, monitoring their progress and helping them to achieve continuous improvement. Importantly, these efforts will help us to develop a similar programme in Mozambique, and they’ll also help inform Better Cotton’s 2030 soil health target to support all Better Cotton Farmers in achieving healthier soils.  

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: https://bettercotton.org/field-level-results-impact/key-sustainability-issues/soil-health-cotton-farming/ 

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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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