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From Sustainable to Regenerative: The Ultimate Win-Win Solution in India’s Cotton Belt

When we think of the things that humans need to thrive, we often think of the basics like air and water and nourishment. We may not immediately think of soil, which acts as a filter for air and water, a womb for the life it nurtures and a shield to what lies beneath. Just like our skin’s ability to heal itself, soil (the “skin of the Earth”) has the power to restore the biodiversity and ecosystems it supports. There is so much potential in soil—socially, environmentally and financially. Yet, we continue to farm in a way that reduces vital fertile topsoil to barren useless dust.

Conventional cotton farming relies on disproportionate amounts of toxic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides. In India, cotton farming represents only 6 percent of the land area, but over 50 percent of the country’s pesticide use. It is the only remaining crop in India that allows for the usage of genetically modified seeds (GMOs), and with over 94 percent of India’s cotton farms using these seeds, the farmers face high risk, crop vulnerabilities and unreliable markets. Cotton is extremely water-intensive, requiring as much as 20,000 liters to produce 1 kg of conventional lint cotton, so farms are often irrigated rather than rain-fed. The chemical cocktails applied with the seeds run off into the soil and waterways, and they also enter our food stream by way of cottonseed oil (used in snack products and other processed foods) and animal feed for dairy. Streamlined to a fault, cotton farms have become imbalanced, truly working against nature instead of in harmony with it.

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As crop yields dwindle despite the use of pricey genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, farmers are reaching rock bottom, leveraging their farms to the banks to make ends meet and sometimes even drinking toxic pesticides to end the cycle of despair. Surely, this is not what farming was meant to be—draining all joy and life from both field and farmer. Cotton farming doesn’t need to be a problem, though. It can be a solution.

Instead of merely mitigating impact, regenerative farming actually restores soil quality, reduces toxic runoff and serves as a thriving “sponge” to sequester atmospheric carbon. It’s less risky and more lucrative for farmers. Regenerative farming increases water retention and biodiversity, going beyond what is considered simply “sustainable.” The word regenerative suggests that our past mistakes can be undone and we can rebuild what once was. In fact, regenerative farming is one of our greatest allies against climate change and global warming. So, what’s the big difference between conventional and regenerative farming?

Regenerative farming is not necessarily “certified organic” and vice versa, though traditional organic farming uses most regenerative farming methods already. These techniques include: composting and cover cropping, which strengthen soil by diversifying microbial populations; no/low till farming, which increases soil fertility by sequestering carbon and maintaining the quality of organic matter in soil; and crop rotation, which helps control weeds and prevent erosion.

India RESET project
Members of the RESET team

To help the cotton industry revert to farming methods that work in balance with nature, I have partnered with agriculture experts in India’s cotton belt to co-create a program known as RESET (Regenerate Environment Society and Economy thru Textiles). The first zero-budget, vertically integrated regenerative cotton farming project in the world—free of GMOs and chemical inputs—RESET lifts farmers, providing them with the tools, training and support to convert to regenerative (organic) farming methods. We implement community-centric models in farming villages, giving a voice to farmers, rather than middlemen or town leadership. With an emphasis on female farmers, RESET farmers enjoy lower costs, greater yields and higher profits.—win-win-win.

We can actually reverse climate change by rebuilding soil biodiversity and ecosystems, encouraging existing farms to sequester atmospheric carbon using these farming methods. The RESET program is a pathway to scale the conversion of more organic farming in India (a farm must be free of GMOs and chemical pesticides for three years to be certified organic), and can be replicated in other cotton-growing regions for further positive impact. Also, regenerative farming is not limited to cotton agriculture—much of our food supply could be improved by implementing these practices and crops (like legumes) in rotation with cotton as an incremental part of the solution, providing additional income to farmers during other growing seasons (cotton is only planted and harvested once a year). Holistic health and prosperity must be cultivated from the ground up—we are, literally and figuratively, sowing the seeds of change.

The fashion industry is being reborn—regenerative cotton agriculture is a significant tool in that transformation. It has become urgent that we restore our planet quickly; doing less bad is not enough—we must do more good. Textile agriculture alone can regenerate ecosystems, empower lives and turn waste into worth. There is so much abundance and opportunity around us, we just have to choose to see it.

“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” — Jonathan Swift

Marci Zaroff coined the term “ECOfashion” in 1995 and is an internationally recognized ECOlifestyle expert, educator, innovator and serial ecopreneur. Founder of leading sustainable fashion lifestyle companies MetaWear, Under the Canopy and Farm to Home, Executive Producer of “THREAD Documentary | Driving Fashion Forward,” Board Member of the Organic Trade Association, Textile Exchange, Fashion Revolution USA and Cradle to Cradle’s “Fashion Positive,” and Author of the upcoming book, “ECOrenaissance: Co-Creating A Stylish, Sexy and Sustainable World,” Marci has been instrumental in driving authenticity, environmental leadership and social justice worldwide for nearly three decades.