Cultivating resilience: Regenerative farming and landscape approaches in the cotton sector

The cotton industry is an important contributor to the global economy, providing a key raw material for textiles, clothing, and numerous other products. Grown in around 100 countries, cotton is also a vital source of income and employment for more than 250 million people all over the world.

Conventional cotton farming practices have taken a heavy toll on the environment and the communities dependent on this crop, however. As climate change intensifies and land degradation accelerates, there is a need to look again at how cotton is cultivated. Regenerative farming, especially in combination with landscape approaches, offers a promising solution. It has the potential to provide resilience in the face of environmental challenges, social pressures, and economic uncertainties. Through strategic collaborations in various regions, IDH aims to make the case for the transition to regenerative farming practices, especially towards the private and public sectors without whom reaching critical scale will not be possible.

The challenges of conventional cotton farming

Conventional cotton farming relies heavily on monoculture practices, extensive chemical use, and irrigation, which have far-reaching negative consequences for both the environment and local communities. These practices degrade soil quality, deplete water resources, and harm biodiversity, all of which increase climate vulnerability. The excessive use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers also poses health risks to farmers and nearby communities and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Regenerative Farming: A path to resilience

Regenerative farming principles provide a sustainable alternative to conventional cotton farming. These principles focus on nurturing the soil, enhancing biodiversity, conserving water, and work towards eliminating chemical inputs. According to the FAO: “Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enrich soils, restore watersheds, and enhance ecosystem services.”

IDH believes that regenerative agriculture requires implementation of practices across six categories: soil cover, soil disturbance, crop diversity, fertilization, crop protection, and water management. Healthy soils are essential for processes such as carbon sequestration, water purification, nutrient regulation, biodiversity preservation, and pest control. In other words, they generate various ecosystem services that can be enjoyed by society, while simultaneously reducing farmers’ vulnerability to crop failures and economic hardship.

Victor Dagnelie, IDH’s Innovation Manager on Better Environment, explains: “It is paramount to actively improve natural conditions on farms, while maintaining high-yielding crops. When done right, many farm processes are picked up by nature rather than external inputs.” “Of course, there are also challenges, for instance, proper contextualization of cropping systems is essential to ensuring successful transitions,” he adds.

While the business case for regenerative agriculture can be made, both for farmers and companies along the supply chain, there are a number of other factors that are inhibiting large-scale adoption. Research shows that it can take up to 5-10 years to convert, depending on the cropping system involved, during which farmers may see a drop in income from the main cash crop. It can take a few years for soil health to improve and incomes to increase, mainly through reduced costs associated with reduced synthetic fertilizer use. There will also be a time lag for incomes from other crops to be realized if farmers are not that well connected to those other markets.

In addition, risks associated with crop failure are predominantly carried by farmers, and so, understandably, they may shy away from transitioning unless others step in to share those risks. Regenerative agriculture also requires a different way of thinking, more strategic and proactive, as it doesn’t use the same quick fixes that conventional agriculture relies on. Changing human behaviour is difficult at the best of times, let alone in the context of numerous other challenges.

Landscape approaches: Essential for long-term ecosystem and community resilience

Landscape approaches, which use a framework for inclusive and multi-sectoral land use management and territorial development, are well-suited to addressing the challenges faced by regenerative farming. By coordinating efforts across multiple farms and stakeholders on the basis of long-lasting and stable partnerships, they consider the interconnectedness of farming, water resources, and ecosystems within a region, while also being rooted in a markets-based approach and formulating social objectives.

The Regenerative Production Landscape Collaboratives (RPLC) that IDH is convening in partnership with Laudes Foundation in Madhya Pradesh, India, and the Semi-arid region of Brazil, are good examples of this approach. They bring together government, private sector, civil society, farmers, farmer collectives, investors, the financial sector, and other stakeholders to build and implement long-term sustainable development plans. Implemented in regions that are suffering from degraded ecosystems and climate change impacts, their objective is to catalyze and scale regenerative production practices, to restore and protect the natural resource base, while also enhancing livelihoods and community prosperity.

A change in business behaviour, mainly by brands and retailers, is seen as crucial for the sector-wide changes the RPLCs aim to influence. A number of big brands, mainly in the food sector, are taking the plunge and making commitments around sourcing from regenerate farms and hectarage of land that they will support the regeneration of. While this is positive, these initiatives tend not to be linked to multi-stakeholder landscape initiatives, which will limit local ownership and convergence with other investments. In short, their scaling potential as well as longer-term sustainability can be put into question.

In order to attract business investments into landscape approaches, we need to be able to show the impacts that are created on issues ranging from female empowerment, smallholder livelihoods, carbon emission reductions, biodiversity, and sustainable soil and water management. Laudes Foundation and IDH are partnering with Gold Standard Foundation on the development of a framework for the accounting and verification of regenerative landscape outcomes.

IDH has identified a couple of ways in which companies can support the transition to regenerative farming:

All these interventions assume reimagining business practices: rethinking relationships with farmers and other value chain actors, building a greater understanding of the local context, collaborating with other stakeholders including civil society organizations, research institutes, financial services companies, and governments, as well as sharing knowledge and risks – upfront as well as throughout the transition. The key here is taking a longer-term perspective; the timelines during which support is needed are typically much longer than off-take agreements currently offer.

The rewards will not just come from having contributed to more resilient agricultural systems, resulting in enhanced reputation and stability in supply, but also from the environmental, economic, and social benefits that will have been created for society as a whole.