Farmers in Brazil bet on environmentally friendly cotton
The road through Cristalina, Brazil, is in the middle of the tropics, but the fields on either side look like they’re covered in snow – little white clouds of cotton stretching to the horizon.
The alabaster plants, interspersed with the corn and soybean fields outside the central-western city, are part of a quiet revolution in Brazil: Faced with negative attention to the environmental impact of agribusiness, farmers are increasingly turning to cotton and adapting sustainable techniques to produce it.
Having increased exports fivefold in the past two decades, Brazil is now the world’s second largest supplier of cotton, after the United States, and the largest producer of sustainable cotton.
A whopping 84 percent of the cotton grown in the South American agricultural giant is certified by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), an international non-profit organization that promotes sustainable cotton farming.
“Consumers have changed. People no longer want to buy products that do not respect nature and its cycles,” said entomologist Cristina Schetino of the University of Brasilia, who specializes in cotton growing.
The industry is trying to improve the international image of Brazilian agriculture, tarnished by a history of slave labor, heavy pesticide use and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for agriculture, a trend that has accelerated under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro – an ally of the agribusiness.
In 2005, the Brazilian Association of Cotton Producers (Abrapa) launched a sustainability training program for farmers and introduced protocols for efficient use of water and pesticides and phasing out toxic products in favor of organic fertilizers.
A new tracking program launched with Brazilian clothing brands, meanwhile, lets consumers check how cotton products were produced.
Last season, cotton farmers in Brazil replaced 34 percent of chemical pesticides with organic ones, Abrapa says.
They have also started using drones to use pesticides more efficiently.
Switching to sustainable techniques is “a re-education process,” said Marcio Portocarreiro, executive director of Abrapa.
“At first, farmers tend to think mainly about the impact on their bottom line. But when they get past that stage… they realize that sustainable farming gives them a guaranteed market,” he told AFP.
Fazenda Pamplona, located outside of Cristalina, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Brasilia, the capital, is one of Brazil’s biggest proponents of sustainable cotton.
The 27,000-acre operation, run by agribusiness giant SLC Agricola, is like a small town in the middle of the countryside, with a banquet hall, children’s park, sports fields and housing for employees.
The farm wants to retain workers by creating a home where they want to stay, says production coordinator Diego Goldschmidt.
He is standing in front of two huge bales of cotton, labeled with QR codes describing their harvest.
“These have already been sold,” he beams.
The farm produced more than 600,000 tons last year, 99 percent of which was for export.
Sustainable cotton is sold at prices up to 10 percent higher than conventional cotton.
“Besides being the right choice for society and the environment, it offers added value,” says Goldschmidt.
But cotton remains one of the most pesticide-intensive crops, with more than double the amount of soy per acre.
The problem is the prevalence of pests such as bulb weevils and the lack of organic products to stop them, Schetino says.
“There is still a lot of dependence on chemical products, which have a negative impact on the environment,” says the entomologist, who is researching alternatives.
Brazil grows about 1.6 million hectares of cotton per year. It is an important supplier to the global clothing industry and exports to China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey, among others.
Abrapa has set itself the ambitious goal of surpassing the US to become the largest cotton supplier in the world by 2030.
“Brazil may not yet have a good image in terms of sustainable agriculture,” Goldschmidt says.
“But we’ll do that soon. There’s a lot of potential.”
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© 2022 AFP
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