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Thirty years ago, Pedro Huallamares’s cotton farm in Peru — which he inherited from his father — seemed like it was thriving. Practising conventional farming methods, however, meant that the farm was overly reliant on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, causing both the land and Huallamares’s health to suffer. So, he made the decision to take on the time- and resource-intensive process of switching to organic farming. Now, in his second year of regenerative organic agriculture, Huallamares’s itchy eyes and breathing problems have dissipated and his land is slowly recovering. He says the new process is “better for everybody, and for the land”.
Interest in regenerative agriculture has piqued in recent years, with everyone from luxury giant Kering to fast fashion stalwart Inditex talking about, and sometimes investing in, the practice. Brands make claims ranging from increased soil health and carbon sequestration to biodiversity and farmer wellbeing. The idea that regenerative agriculture is better for the environment and people is largely undisputed, but the metrics for measuring those improvements are far from settled and concerns around execution remain.
The scientific community is yet to agree on a methodology for measuring the impact of regenerative farming practices on soil carbon sequestration, and many organisations still jostle over the definition of regenerative agriculture and its core principles.
Farmers often take on a disproportionate burden when transitioning their farms to regenerative. The multi-year period involves significant investment, labour and risk, particularly of reduced yields, for instance. Without brand commitments, that risk is untenable for many farmers, whose finances are often already precarious and subject to the whim of the climate, market prices and other variables beyond their control. They need guarantees that the cotton they grow will be bought — and that they’ll have some amount of income if the cotton fails to grow at all, or in lower quantities than expected, during the transition period.
The history of cotton is inextricable from the history of slavery and colonialism, but the financial relationships underpinning regenerative organic cotton — brands derisk the process for farmers — have been widely associated with decolonisation and just transition narratives. Experts argue that a system which puts workers first and challenges the power dynamic in agriculture is a major step forward. “Regenerative organic is not just another certification, it can’t be a transactional relationship,” says Dylon Shepelsky, senior manager of product development and R&D at Los Angeles apparel brand Outerknown.