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Cristalina (Brazil) (AFP) – The road through Cristalina, Brazil, is in the middle of the tropics, but the fields on either side seem blanketed in snow – little puffs of white cotton stretching to the horizon.
Alabaster plants interspersed with fields of corn and soybeans outside the midwestern city are part of a silent revolution in Brazil: in the face of negative attention for the environmental impact of the industry agribusiness, farmers are increasingly turning to cotton and adopting sustainable techniques to produce it.
After increasing its exports 15-fold over 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.
No less than 84% of the cotton grown in the South American agricultural giant is certified by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), an international non-profit group aimed at promoting sustainable cotton cultivation.
“Consumers have changed. People no longer want to buy products that do not respect nature and its cycles,” explains entomologist Cristina Schetino from 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 forced labor, heavy use of pesticides and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for agriculture, a trend that has accelerated under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro – an agribusiness ally.
In 2005, the Brazilian Association of Cotton Producers (Abrapa) launched a sustainability training program for farmers and introduced protocols on the efficient use of water and pesticides and the gradual elimination of toxic products for organic fertilizers.
A new tracing program launched with Brazilian clothing brands allows consumers to verify how cotton products were produced.
Last season, cotton farmers in Brazil replaced 34% of chemical pesticides with biological pesticides, says Abrapa.
They have also started using drones to apply pesticides more efficiently.
Switching to sustainable techniques is “a re-education process”, says Abrapa executive director Marcio Portocarreiro.
“At first, farmers tend to think manly about the impact on their bottom line. But when they get past this phase (…) they realize that sustainable agriculture gives them a guaranteed market,” he explains. he told AFP.
Located outside of Cristalina, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Brasilia, the capital, Fazenda Pamplona is one of the biggest proponents of sustainable cotton in Brazil.
The 27,000-hectare (67,000-acre) operation, run by agribusiness giant SLC Agricola, looks like a small town in the countryside, with a banquet hall, children’s park, sports fields and housing for employees.
The farm aims to retain workers by creating a home they’ll want to stay in, says production coordinator Diego Goldschmidt.
He stands in front of two huge bales of cotton, tagged with QR codes that detail their harvest.
“These are already sold out,” he beams.
The farm produced more than 600,000 tonnes last year, 99% of which was for export.
Sustainable cotton sells for prices up to 10% higher than conventional cotton.
“As well as being the right thing to do for society and the environment, it adds value,” says Goldschmidt.
But cotton remains one of the most pesticide-intensive crops, using more than double that of soybeans per hectare.
The problem is the prevalence of pests such as boll weevils and the lack of biologics to stop them, Schetino says.
“There is still a lot of addiction to chemicals, which have a negative impact on the environment,” explains the entomologist, who is looking for alternatives.
Brazil cultivates about 1.6 million hectares of cotton per year. It is a key supplier to the global garment industry, exporting to China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey.
Abrapa has set an ambitious goal to overtake the United States to become the world’s largest cotton supplier by 2030.
“Brazil may not yet have a good image of sustainable agriculture,” says Goldschmidt.
“But we will soon. There is a lot of potential.”
© 2022 AFP