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Thirty years ago, Pedro Һualamares’s cotton farm in Peru—which he inherited from his father—seemed to be thriving. However, practicing conventional farming methods meant the farm relied too much on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which damaged both the soil and Һualamares health. Therefore, he made the decision to undertake the process of transition to organic farming, which requires a lot of time and resources. Now in his second year of regenerative organic farming, Һualamares’ itchy eyes and breathing problems have disappeared and his land is slowly recovering. He says the new process is “better for everyone and for the country.”
Interest in regenerative agriculture has grown in recent years, with everyone from luxury giant Kering to fast fashion giant Inditex talking about the practice, and sometimes investing in it. Brands make claims ranging from improved soil health and carbon sequestration to biodiversity and farmer welfare. The idea that regenerative agriculture is better for the environment and people is largely uncontested, but the metrics for measuring those improvements are far from settled and concerns about enforcement remain.
The scientific community has yet to agree on a methodology for measuring the impact of regenerative agriculture practices on soil carbon sequestration, and many organizations are still struggling over the definition of regenerative agriculture and its underlying principles.
Farmers often shoulder a disproportionately large burden when converting their farms to renewables. A multi-year period involves significant investment, work and risk, especially of diminishing returns, for example. Without brand commitment, that risk is unsustainable for many farmers, whose finances are often already precarious and vulnerable to changing climate, market prices and other variables beyond their control. They need guarantees that the cotton they grow will be bought — and that they will have some income if the cotton fails at all, or in smaller amounts than expected, during the transition period.
The history of cotton is inseparable from the history of slavery and colonialism, but the financial relations underpinning regenerative organic cotton—brands denigrate the process for farmers—were widely associated with decolonization and merely transitional narratives. Experts argue that a system that puts workers first and challenges power dynamics in agriculture is a big step forward. “Regenerative organic isn’t just another certification, it can’t be a transactional relationship,” says Dylon Shepelsky, senior manager of product development and research and development at Los Angeles-based clothing brand Outerknown.