How small-scale farmers manage their cotton fields has a significant impact on soil health, the climate, and biodiversity. Recognising this, the Cotton made in Africa standard began incorporating sustainable agricultural practices into its requirements many years ago. Now falling under the term regenerative agriculture, these practices not only promote soil fertility but also help to protect the climate and the environment. Small-scale farmers regularly receive training in regenerative practices, including zero tillage, also called no-till farming, in which the soil is not disturbed through tillage. They also learn about integrated pest management, which aims to limit the use of chemical pesticides to the minimum of what is necessary. Through ongoing projects, CmiA is also spreading other regenerative practices and expanding measures for sustainable soil management. The initiative’s aim is to build up small-scale farmers’ resilience to the effects of climate change and to improve their livelihoods for the long term.
Globally, around 23 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the agriculture and forestry sector. The goal of regenerative agriculture is to reduce this figure and to make agriculture more climate-friendly. Its focus is on restoring healthy and resilient soils that can store CO2. This is a priority because soils are the second-largest carbon sink in the world, absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere than they release – as long as they are sustainably managed. In addition, regenerative cultivation methods promote biodiversity, improve water circulation, and increase nutrient availability in the soil.
A regenerative approach means thinking holistically in order to transform agriculture with a focus on sustainability and biodiversity.
Regenerative practices have long been part of Cotton made in Africa’s approach to sustainable cotton cultivation, which prioritises healthy soils, strong plants, an intact environment, and resilient farming families. Because none of these four goals can be achieved without the others, Cotton made in Africa combines a variety of methods and measures in its pursuit of regenerative agriculture.
To maintain or restore soil health, CmiA small-scale farmers use a variety of regenerative practices, including:
Small-scale farmers receive training in integrated production and pest management (IPPM), which combines a variety of measures with the aim of protecting the climate and the environment. These include organic seed treatments and plant-based pest control, which might involve planting sunflowers to distract pests from cotton plants. This is complemented by scouting and the use of molasses traps (see here) and organic fertiliser. This combination of adapted seeds, nutrient-rich soil, and good management reduces the need for chemical pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
Integrated pest management is not limited to the fields. For example, farmers plant trees, bushes, and hedges to stem erosion and to make organic pesticides; in addition to improving biodiversity, this serves to protect wild animals and birds. Afforestation and forest conservation also play key roles.
All measures ultimately improve the livelihoods and living conditions of the farmers and their families. Healthy soils lead to healthy plants, which lead to better harvests and a larger income. Through diverse crop rotation with catch crops, small-scale farmers grow food for their own tables. In addition, the training offered to small-scale farmers enables them to improve their farm management by taking climate-related aspects into consideration.
Criteria promoting regenerative and climate-positive agriculture have been incorporated into the Cotton made in Africa standard and are regularly reviewed. For instance, the primary objectives of the CmiA standard’s Plant pillar are:
All three principles contain further subpoints through which CmiA aims to ensure that biodiversity and natural habitats are conserved and improved (see here). In addition, Volume 4 of the CmiA standard, published in December 2020, also contains specific requirements to guide small-scale farmers in adapting their cultivation methods to changing climate conditions and in developing sustainable strategies in order to ensure good yields for the long term. These requirements also show farmers how to protect the climate by reducing CO2 emissions.
CmiA works closely with agricultural experts and local cotton companies to develop training materials for regenerative agriculture based on these principles.
In addition to the training programme, which has proven its worth over many years, Cotton made in Africa has created projects with the specific purpose of providing concrete solutions to the challenges posed by climate change. One such project is the Carbon Neutral Initiative (see here), which takes measures to steadily reduce, and if possible eliminate, the greenhouse gas emissions caused by cotton cultivation and ginning while also implementing measures in the project regions to compensate for residual emissions that cannot be avoided. One compensatory measure is the use of climate-friendly cooking stoves. In addition, CmiA started the CAR-iSMa project in 2021. The project’s objective is to improve soil management through sustainable production methods in order to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farming families, reduce the effects of climate change for small-scale farmers, and strengthen their resilience (see here). Another major contribution is made by the CmiA Community Cooperation Programme (CCCP), which helps to make farmers more aware of environmental and nature protection and to implement specific measures like the collection of pesticide containers in Mozambique (see here).
Forty percent of all cotton produced in Africa is now verified by CmiA. This means that CmiA has already reached around one million small-scale farmers through its training programme. These farmers are now producing some 690,000 tonnes of ginned cotton certified through the CmiA or CmiA Organic standards in ten countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2021, for example, CmiA in cooperation with the local cotton companies was able to provide 850,000 small-scale farmers with training in fundamental good agricultural practices, nearly 594,000 in techniques for improving soil fertility, 665,000 in integrated plant and pest management, and more than 680,000 in the proper application and storage of pesticides.
Maintaining soil health has been central to the CmiA standard for many years. With climate change increasingly making itself felt, it is now important to build on this approach. Protecting soils and improving soil organic matter are therefore new areas of focus for all CmiA countries. However, the suitability of innovative practices like using biochar (produced through the pyrolysis of plant material) differs from country to country and needs to be assessed as their practical potential for cotton cultivation can depend on local circumstances.