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.

Read more

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

Read more

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/ 

Learn more

Read more

Share this page