Impacts of cotton farming targeted

15th February 2016

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  • Adaptation ,
  • Business & Industry ,
  • Agriculture ,
  • Retail and wholesale


Peter Whitworth

Seven businesses have launched a tool to reduce the impact of cotton farming on the water, soil and biodiversity.

The launch follows collaboration between academic experts and the businesses, which are members of the Natural Capital leaders platform at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership (CISL), to scrutinise the success of various cotton management practices on water, soil and biodiversity.

Cotton is one of the world’s most important crops, representing one third of the world’s textile demand, and was grown across 2.5% of global agricultural land last year, according to CISL. However, the natural resources the sector depends on are at risk and must be safeguarded to ensure the long-term security of cotton supply chains, the organisation said.

The online tool will help businesses determine the management interventions they should prioritise, depending on their position in the cotton supply chain. It is based on the findings of a review of 160 scientific studies of the impact of various types of management practice on water, biodiversity and soil, which is outlined in a report.

Most damage to natural capital occurs during the growing stage of cotton production, the report states. For example, water consumption is far higher during growth than in dyeing and finishing, and is a hot spot for businesses with concerns about water security in their supply chains. More than 70% of the global cotton harvest is irrigated, the report states.

However, cotton is a relatively drought-resistant crop and requires water mainly at particular stages of growth. This is not always considered and can lead to over-irrigation, says the report.

The Natural Capital leaders platform also considered ways to overcome barriers to implementing good management of cotton crops, such as the need for farmers to be confident that a change in practice will be successful and reduce both long-term and short-term risks.

There are many initiatives around sustainability and the cotton industry, such as the Better Cotton Initiative, Cotton Connect, Fairtrade and the Textile Exchange, the report notes. However, the extent to which these address natural capital challenges varies considerably and there are large difference in farm management and efficiency, suggesting that considerable opportunities exist to improve, it states.

The report stresses that the relationship between cotton and water, biodiversity and soil is complex and businesses should not target a single element in isolation.

The companies involved in the project are retailers Asda and C&A; agricultural business Cargill; chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer; luxury clothing company Kering; agri-business Olam; and Value Retail, which operates shopping centres .

Gemma Cranston, senior programme manager at CISL’s Natural Capital leaders platform, said businesses face considerable challenges around the lack of evidence on best management practices for natural capital.

‘By making the evidence accessible to key decision-makers and influencers within cotton supply chains, more informed decisions can be made to support cotton’s sustainable future,’ she said.


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