The demand for cotton as a commodity has grown exponentially since the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century. It also revolutionised the textile market due to its strong, breathable, and dye absorbent fibres, changing how people dressed. A variety of inventions and technological advancements have since transformed the cotton industry. The global cotton market was US$ 38.54 Billion in 2020 and has the potential to reach US$ 46.56 Billion by 2027 at a CAGR of 2.74%.
Cotton is a perennial crop that requires long frost-free periods, high temperatures, and plenty of sunshine, with moderate irrigation or light rainfall in the growth phase. Globally, nearly 25 million tonnes of cotton gets produced every year, most of which originates in India, China, and the United States.
Sustainability issues that impact soil quality, biodiversity, and profitability encourage producers to implement sustainable agriculture practices and technologies, to reduce environmental impact and improve crop productivity.
Here is a detailed discourse on the what, why, and how of sustainable cotton production.
Cotton, as agricultural produce, continues to contribute notably to several developing countries’ economies as well as millions of livelihoods worldwide. Like all other basic human requirements, textiles also continue witnessing growing demand with an ever-increasing population. Among the broad range of available fibres that can address this rising demand, cotton gets the highest priority, especially in Asian countries.
The following data reinforce this fact.
The cotton industry faced business disruptions last year due to the pandemic. Yet, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates a 4.1% growth for the 2021-22 season.
However, the increased demand for cotton production calls for greater consumption of resources. It is here that sustainable agriculture comes to play to prevent the depletion of natural resources.
The soaring demand for cotton is palpable because it is the raw material for numerous textile and home furnishing products, medical and healthcare kits, cosmetic and soap products. It is also commonly used in coffee filters, fishing nets, tents, cotton paper, cloth bags, and bookbinding. While humans consume cottonseed oil like other vegetable oils, the cottonseed meal, a byproduct, is often fed to ruminant livestock. Cotton’s diverse applications make it the most prevalent and profitable non-food crop globally.
Cotton is a natural fibre and requires land and water, unlike artificial fibres such as polyester and rayon. Its production is spread over almost 3% of arable land worldwide. However, in itself, cotton does not require many other resources to thrive since it is a drought- and heat-resistant crop. Therefore, the implementation of green agriculture via CropIn’s digital platform can help with the following objectives, all at the same time.
Besides, CropIn’s traceability solution RootTrace allows customers to verify the sustainable cultivation and sourcing of the received end-products. This, in turn, can help brands build trust and reliability.
Here are a few ways in which farmers can implement sustainable agriculture for cotton cultivation.
Generally, cotton cultivation does not require extensive pesticide application for protection against diseases. While only young cotton plants are somewhat vulnerable and will require the most insecticide application, it accounts for nearly 24% of the global insecticide use. In India, anywhere between 40 and 50% of all pesticides used in the country are in cotton production.
Farmers can optimise crop protection by practising precision agriculture to reduce the unnecessary use of harmful chemicals. SmartRisk helps cotton-producing companies with the exact identification of areas with low crop performance via 360-degree monitoring. It helps prevent water and soil pollution via fertiliser and pesticide run-off and also increases crop productivity.
Cotton is a Kharif crop, which makes it highly resistant to hot weather conditions. It is a drought-resistant crop and does not require significant irrigation. Light rainfall or proper irrigation can contribute to most of the water requirements of cotton plants. However, according to research by Water Footprint Network, producing 1 kilogramme of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water, on average, compared to the global average water footprint of 10,000 litres. The difference in water consumption is due to inefficient water use and high rates of water contamination due to pesticide run-off. The excessive water consumption also translates to a proportional volume of the loss of virtual water through exports to other countries.
Efficient water conservation practices can help producers overcome these challenges. In addition, farmers can get accurate weather predictions via SmartFarm, plan for irrigation when needed, and take preventive measures in case of unfavourable weather conditions.
Regenerative agriculture encourages soil-renewing farming practices. These include minimising soil disturbance by reducing tillage, providing soil armour, and cultivating a wide range of crops throughout the year. A protective layer of green plant roots facilitates symbiosis, acting as a natural fertiliser. Similarly, practices like crop rotation, cover cropping, and companion cropping can help the soil retain a balance of different nutrients synthesised by various plants.
The mentioned farming practices constituting sustainable agriculture, like reducing tillage and diversifying plant species, are intrinsic to maintaining biodiversity loss. Another technique that can cater to this cause is intercropping. In this process, cotton cultivators can grow other plants alongside cotton on the same farm to promote beneficial interactions. Additionally, they can plant cover crops and trees with deep roots to prevent soil erosion by water and wind.
Cotton farming employs about 7% of all labour in developing countries and is a source of livelihood for more than 250 million people worldwide. However, the production involves maximum risk and minimum reward for the farmers. In addition to considering environmental impact, sustainable cotton production needs to address its socio-economic impact on farmers, their families, and the extended community at large. It includes concerns such as the demanding working conditions of farmworkers, their health and safety, economic insecurity, the incidence of child labour or bonded/forced labour, and the treatment of women/girl workers. Several international textile and fashion brands are supporting projects that ensure decent and ethical working conditions. In this regard, implementing traceability to the source can effectively promote the welfare and rights of the farmworkers.
With its technology-driven platform, CropIn has enabled the following organisations to prosper via sustainable cotton cultivation.
CropIn started working with the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) in 2017. Since then, it has helped the global organisation achieve its goal of promoting organic cotton production:
CropIn served as the technology partner for Technoserve, with which Plexus Cotton collaborated for a project in Mozambique in 2016. CropIn’s primary role here was:
Organic cotton production can be one of the primary building blocks of sustainable agriculture with the proper farming techniques. Understanding the environmental need for the same and implementing the discussed practices can help progress the already growing movement towards sustainability.
With CropIn, you can accelerate this journey and steer clear of disruptions better.