Creating farming techniques that don’t use heavy amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides or tillage – preparation of soil for planting through mechanical agitation of various types, such as digging, stirring and overturning – is becoming increasingly regarded as crucial for an abundant and secure food supply in the future. The development and scaling of regenerative agriculture may be just as crucial for the clothing sector, where cotton, which is dependent on the same linear growing practices, is a critical material input.
There are some positive signs that clothing companies are taking notice. Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario recently wrote that regenerative organic farming, “includes any agricultural practice that increases soil organic matter from baseline levels over time, provides long-term economic stability for farmers and ranchers, and creates resilient ecosystems and communities”.
Defining regenerative agriculture, as Marcario has aimed to do, is particularly important in a context where the words restorative, regenerative and organic are used frequently, interchangeably and without attachment to a clear set of principles. Highlighting the confusion caused by these inconsistencies as one of the reasons for the slow growth of regenerative practices, she makes the case that the conversation needs to be introduced into the clothing and textiles sector.
Clothing is represents a significant part of the overall picture, around 16% of pesticides globally are used to grow conventional cotton, while “organic cotton” forms only 1% of the marketplace, a figure that has remained relatively stagnant since the first half of the 1990s.
The broader idea of regenerative agriculture has been gaining increasing traction in a context, where the limitations of intensive monocropping farming are being revealed. The “superficial success [judged by ra agricultural output] of farms has been masking underlying problems”, wrote Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins in Natural Capitalism. One third of the original topsoil in the United States has gone and a subtler soil degradation is impacting the nutrition of what remains damaging the quantity and quality of the crops that can be grown. The evidence is building that petrochemicals, inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and monocropping has created farmland that doesn’t hold nutrients, is eroded and has high salinity, and the effects are perhaps now being felt even more clearly with stagnant crop yields becoming a phenomena worldwide.
Success stories for new approaches are becoming more prevalent, none more impressive than Brazilian sugarcane farmer Leontino Balbo Jr, who radically transformed his farm to eliminate the use of chemicals and other monocropping farming techniques. Balbo Jr’s company Native is now the largest supplier of organic sugar in the world, he has cut energy and water costs, increased yields all whilst growing on land that has higher levels of biodiversity than many of Brazil’s national parks.
With mounting evidence that regenerative techniques offer economic and environmental advantages in the 21st century, the development of a narrative and conversation around the importance of better farming for clothing could be crucial, both in terms of developing an effective agricultural system, and the application of the circular economy to textiles.
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