CRISTALINA, BRAZIL (AFP) – The road through Cristalina, Brazil is in the middle of the tropics, but the fields on either side look like they are covered in snow – little white puffs of cotton stretching to the horizon.
The alabaster plants interspersed with the corn and soybean fields outside the central-western town are part of a silent revolution in Brazil: facing negative attention over the agribusiness industry’s environmental impact, farmers are increasingly turning to cotton and adopting sustainable techniques to produce it.
After increasing exports 15-fold in the past two decades, Brazil is now the world’s second-biggest cotton supplier, after the United States – and the biggest producer of sustainable cotton.
No less than 84 per cent of the cotton grown in the South American agricultural giant is certified by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), an international non-profit group to promote sustainable cotton farming.
“Consumers have changed. People don’t want to buy products any more than don’t respect nature and its cycles,” says entomologist Cristina Schetino of the University of Brasilia, who specialises in cotton farming.
The industry is trying to improve the international image of Brazilian farming, tarnished by a history of slave labour, heavy pesticide use 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 Cotton Producers’ Association (Abrapa) launched a sustainability training programme for farmers and introduced protocols on efficiently using water and pesticides and phasing out toxic products in favour of biological fertilisers.
A new tracing program launched with Brazilian clothing brands meanwhile lets consumers check how cotton goods were produced.
Last season, cotton farmers in Brazil replaced 34 per cent of chemical pesticides with biological ones, Abrapa says.
They have also started using drones to apply pesticides more efficiently.
Switching to sustainable techniques is “a re-education process,” says Abrapa’s executive director, Marcio Portocarreiro.
“At first, farmers tend to think manly about the impact on their bottom line. But when they get past that phase… they realise that farming sustainably gives them a guaranteed market,” he told AFP.