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MEMPHIS – What is regenerative agriculture and how does it relate to the production of cotton? With more and more fashion brands referencing the use of regenerative farming in their supply chains, we found out about how regenerative techniques are being used in cotton farming, with specific reference to US cotton.

For expert guidance on this, we spoke to Dr. Gary Adams, president of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.

Apparel Insider: How would you define regenerative agriculture?

Dr. Gary Adams: Regenerative agriculture describes farming practices that can reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. It looks at the combination of practices that support resilience as well as building and nourishing the ecosystem in a holistic manner.

The principles of a regenerative agriculture system are based on indigenous ways of land management and are adaptive to local physical conditions and culture. These principles include:

  • Minimizing soil disturbance
  • Maintaining living roots in soil
  • Continuously covering bare soil
  • Maximizing diversity with emphasis on crops, soil microbes and pollinators
  • Integrating livestock where it is feasible

Apparel Insider: What are the main environmental benefits of regenerative farming?

Dr. Gary Adams: Regenerative agriculture builds upon the positive environmental impacts of sustainable practices, aiming for a whole systems approach to bio-sequestration, and biodiversity through increasing the micro-organisms in the soil and animals surrounding and within the fields such as bees and butterflies, ecotoxicity, climate resilience, water systems which focuses on water quality and increase of soil water holding capacity, micronutrients, and ecosystem services. Over time, regenerative practices can increase productivity and naturally reduce the need for external inputs required for plants.

Apparel insider: Is regenerative farming a new concept? Or is this just a new name for ideas that have always been practiced by farmers (or, at least, some farmers)? 

Dr. Gary Adams: Regenerative practices are not new to farmers. In fact, sustainability has been a focus of U.S. cotton growers for generations. Practices such as conservation tillage and growing cover crops have helped soil health and increased soil carbon levels. Although U.S. cotton growers have been implementing these techniques for decades, these practices have recently been grouped into a manner of farming called regenerative agriculture.

Over the last four decades, growers have understood that continuous improvement and building upon their environmental impact is vital to their operations, and as the saying goes, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. This is where programmes such as the Trust Protocol come in – the initiative’s mission is to bring quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurement to the key sustainability metrics of U.S. cotton production with a vision where transparency is a reality and continuous improvement to improve our environmental footprint is the central goal.

Apparel Insider: What can you tell us about the experiences of regenerative farming being practiced by Trust Protocol members? Is this something you are pushing among members?

Dr. Gary Adams: Trust Protocol growers are continually improving techniques, including incorporating regenerative agriculture practices, which aim for net positives (ie., putting more into the land than they take out) such as conservation tillage, cover crops, and crop rotation to aid soil health and increase soil carbon levels. The programme focuses on practices that minimise soil disturbance and loss, maintain living roots year-round, keep the soil covered, and maximise crop diversity.

In the 2021/22 annual report, the Trust Protocol explored the following data related to regenerative agriculture:

  • – More than 55 per cent of Trust Protocol acres were planted with cover crops, which encourage food security and reduce atmospheric carbon
  • – Continuous reduced or no-till production increases the amount of soil organic matter on the soil surface and in 2021/22, more than half of reported acres practiced no-till and 30 per cent practiced reduced tillage
  • – 70 per cent of Trust Protocol reported acreage practiced crop rotation in 2021/22, which maximises biodiversity by increasing soil organic matter, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, and producing healthier soil
  • – 70 per cent of Trust Protocol reported acreage practiced integrated pest management (IPM), which is a science-based approach that strategizes tools and techniques to identify and manage pests
  • – The 4R principles of fertilizer application – right source, right rate, right time and right place – were implemented on 90 per cent of reported acreage in 2021/22

Apparel insider: Is regenerative farming something which can be taught? Can farmers be trained in such methods?

Dr. Gary Adams: Throughout the 17 cotton-producing states there are a variety of climates, temperature patterns, soils and more that mean there are no universal production techniques for growers. Growers can learn more about regenerative agriculture and find ways to implement practices that are best suited for their own operations. U.S. cotton growers understand that they must constantly improve in order to protect and preserve the planet – to ultimately help create more sustainable clothing.

This understanding is enabled by innovations and technology that includes precision agriculture and regenerative practices. Today, 63 per cent of U.S. cotton growers use precision agriculture technology including GPS receivers, multi-spectral images and ground-based sensors. These technologies gather field-specific parameters including soil conditions, nutrients and water availability. They assess the data to deploy site-specific crop management practices to maximize yields and minimize crop inputs. Real-time weather radar allows growers to avoid activities affected by storms, such as run-off from nutrient and herbicide applications. Yield maps show how areas within fields may need different management.

Apparel insider: Regenerative farming is being pushed as a saviour by some. The hype around it is very strong. Is this justified?

Dr. Gary Adams: There will always be ways to continuously improve when it comes to sustainable practices or regenerative agriculture. Individuals and organisations continue to develop new technologies, processes and research that aids growers in further implementing new and innovative sustainable practices. Now more than ever, people care about the environment and how their clothes are made. And, while the distance from U.S. cotton fields, to the runways of global fashion brands, and consumer closets may seem far, the focus on regenerative agriculture has never been more impactful.

Regenerative agriculture goes a step further than some practices and aims for net positives, as opposed to simply having a neutral impact on the environment. It builds upon the positive environmental impacts of sustainable practices, aiming for a whole systems approach to positive sustainability practices. U.S. cotton growers’ efforts towards continuous improvement are central to the Trust Protocol and the U.S. cotton industry taking sustainability to the next level.

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