During a recent industry event, I was part of a discussion about regenerative cotton. Also taking part were designers, brands, academics, impact assessment companies and a denim mill. What was immediately apparent was the conflation of organic and regenerative farming practices, intermixed with a range of ideas along the lines of: 'regenerative cotton is the new organic cotton - the next big thing'.
Confusion was high. Clarity and sound decision-making potential were low.
Is regenerative cotton 'better' than organic cotton? What is 'regenerative'? How do organic and regenerative practices relate to impact reduction, and where do 'conventional' farming practices fit in?
During a recent industry event, I was part of a discussion about regenerative cotton. Also taking part were designers, brands, academics, impact assessment companies and a denim mill. What was immediately apparent was the conflation of organic and regenerative farming practices, intermixed with a range of ideas along the lines of: ‘regenerative cotton is the new organic cotton – the next big thing’.
Confusion was high. Clarity and sound decision-making potential were low.
Is regenerative cotton ‘better’ than organic cotton? What is ‘regenerative’? How do organic and regenerative practices relate to impact reduction, and where do ‘conventional’ farming practices fit in?
Industrialised farming practices – now termed ‘conventional’ – began in the early 1900s1 following the mechanisation of processes and the creation of synthetic chemicals (from fossil sources) and pharmaceuticals. This led to the expansion of agricultural production following linear economics, whereby maximum value is extracted from resources, using inputs (like synthetic fertilisers and antibiotics) that increase productivity, but without considering waste and resource efficiency outside of profitability. This resulted in a tremendous increase in yields of food and fibres, which were abundant and low cost.
But there has been a cost to sustainability2. Environmental consequences of industrial farming include the degradation of groundwater, surface water, soils, and biological diversity. Social costs include a growing rural-urban divide, a worldwide obesity epidemic, and antibiotic resistance.
In recent decades, movements towards ecologically-compatible farming methods have increased. These include ecological, organic and regenerative agriculture systems. Scientific research demonstrates3 that all three systems are highly competitive in terms of a low environmental impact compared to conventional farming. However, they are poorly competitive from a legislative point of view (they are considered highly reliant on financial incentives and political support). Additionally, ecological, organic and regenerative farming tend to fare worse regarding cost and yields, which is a problem on a planet of 8bn people (and rising), many of whom have a growing appetite for fast and cheap consumption of all things from food to fashion.
Regarding cotton, the sourcing divide has historically been between conventionally and organically farmed. But regenerative practices have entered the fray, vying for brand allegiance and making a case for expanding the ‘low impact cotton’ narrative beyond ‘organic’ with the demonstration of high carbon sequestration potential in particular. Right now, less than 1% of global cotton production is organic. 99% is conventional. But what about regenerative? Is it ‘better’ than organic, and can it scale more readily?
During industry discussions, it has been evident that many believe regenerative means without fertilisers and pesticides and GMO-free. This is not the case.
The differences between organic and regenerative farming practices
Organic agriculture (OA) is a holistic approach that maintains and increases the health of the soil and includes biological cycles. This is achieved by applying agronomic, biological, and mechanical techniques instead of using synthetic inputs to perform specific functions within the agricultural system. Organic agriculture adheres to these regulations:
- No chemical pesticides,
- No synthetic fertilisers,
- No genetically modified crops,
- Responsible use of energy and natural resources.
Regenerative agriculture (RA) is a holistic approach to farming that highlights the connection between farming systems and the broader ecological system4. Regenerative agriculture is a concept rather than a strict pre-defined set of requirements. It involves practice-based assessment of farming systems that strictly adhere to five acknowledged principles:
- cover the soil,
- avoid soil disturbance,
- increase crop diversification,
- maintain living roots in the earth year-round
- incorporate livestock.
The objective of regenerative farming is to improve farm soil quality and biodiversity while profitably generating nutritious farm products. Regenerative agriculture eliminates tillage (digging and turning the soil) and Spatio-temporal occurrences (including environmental damage) associated with bare soil. Simultaneously, RA promotes plant diversity5 and integrates animal and food production on the land.
Organic and regenerative – pros and cons
Relative to organic, there is meagre data available regarding the benefits of regenerative farming. However, research has demonstrated that regenerative practices can lead to higher profitability than conventional farming practices6.
Organic farming safeguards the environment by prohibiting synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. On the one hand, this reduces environmental impacts from chemical overuse; but on the other, it can lead to social and economic hardship because of lower yields resulting from the absence of synthetic inputs that increase productivity. This high vulnerability to seasonal harvests is even more pointed as flooding causes widespread crop losses that devastate lands and livelihoods, like in Pakistan this year7.
Is organic ‘better’ for not using chemicals and genetic modification, thereby not harming water, soil, humans and ‘pests’, or is it inadequate because of its limited capacity to feed the global population at current waste and consumption rates? Furthermore, is it ‘better’ because there are certifications to demonstrate compliance with organic standards, which regenerative agriculture does not have?
Regenerative methods allow farmers to use synthetic chemicals and genetically modified (GM) seeds to ensure characteristics in the crop that may survive better in certain conditions, depending on regional climate and other factors. Is regenerative ‘better’ because it can respond to ecological challenges through GM and targeted synthetic chemical use – so long as the ‘net regenerative’ impact is positive (to be proven through ongoing soil, water and biodiversity analysis)? Is regenerative ‘better’ because of its demonstrable enhanced carbon sequestration at a time when emissions reduction is paramount to halting climate change? Or, is ‘regenerative’ a crutch to uphold our unabated consumption, compared to ‘organic’ with its forced limits on what optimised agriculture in tune with nature can provide?
Plumping for organic or regenerative cotton
The decision is not straightforward, and the information provided in this analysis is mainly theoretical. In practice, organic farming is certified through manual and highly fallible8 chain-of-custody processes. Regenerative farming is not a universal, singular set of methods that can be distilled into a certification – it must be analysed case-by-case, depending on net impacts, yields and costs. Nevertheless, as brands double down on reducing their emissions in line with climate targets, proof of carbon sequestration through ecologically sound fibre selection has obvious carbon accounting benefits in reducing their overall footprint.
Right now, regenerative farming advocates are leaning towards providing this carbon sequestration data, gaining favour from some high-profile brands (more on that in the coming KingPins Intel piece). Organic advocates, however, tend to focus more intensely on the consumer confidence provided by the non-synthetic chemical, non-GM narrative, along with broader impact reduction claims – including debunked9 water reduction claims.
For all its certification faults, organic cotton does have a well-established and straightforward framework for what it is and how it is grown, leading to defined organic standards from which certifications are drawn. This makes communicating the story of organic cotton easier, piggybacking off what consumers already understand about organic food. So in this context, perception may be a decisive factor in choosing organic fibres over all other options.
Thanks to advances in satellite technology, the capture of soil health (including carbon sequestration) and other environmental data are expanding to calibrated and automatic means. In coming years, the data gap that now divides conventional, organic and regenerative farming practices and outputs will recede, giving way to empirical numbers that determine the fibres and foods that are successful in environmental terms, at least. Until then, the decision to choose organic or regenerative (or even conventional) must be weighted, including the factors mentioned here.
- 1 John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Industrialization of Agriculture
- 2 Academic Press, Chapter 27 - An Evolutionary Perspective on Industrial and Sustainable Agriculture (2018)
- 3 Sciendo, A review on the competitiveness and performance of ecological, organic and regenerative agricultural systems (2022)
- 4 Applied Soil Ecology, Soil health: Research, practice and policy for a more regenerative agriculture (2000)
- 5 PeerJ, Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably (2018)
- 6 PeerJ, Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably (2018)
- 7 BBC, Pakistan floods: 'It’s like fighting a war with no end' (2022)
- 8 EcoTextile News, Breaking point for organic cotton integrity (12 April 2022)
- 9 Forbes, Organic Water-Saving Claims False, Declares Cotton Myth-Busting Report (15 October 2021)