Everyone is (quite rightly) talking about the perils of plastic but the consequences of conventional cotton farming also pose an almighty threat to our planet.
Veronica Yow is an organic cotton guru! She works first-hand with farmers, helping them switch to a healthier approach of agriculture. She’s also a pretty incredible woman, so we wanted to get to know her better.
Part One: Changing Behaviours
“Most of the time, people create the biggest problems but also have the ability to offer the biggest solutions”
Eva: Let’s start from the very beginning...What was your dream job as a child?
Veronica: I think I wanted to be an air stewardess or something like that so that I can travel.
Eva: And what do you do now for work?
Veronica: I work for an international environmental conservation non-profit organization that specializes in behavior change (aka Rare). My role ranges from project management to fundraising.
Eva: What’s the biggest challenge in your work?
Veronica: Changing behaviors! Most of the time, people create the biggest problems but also have the ability to offer the biggest solutions so how do you help them see that? We use a range of behavioral strategies like Emotional Appeal, Social Influences, and Choice Architecture (the way choices are presented) to change behaviors in communities so that people and nature thrive together.
Eva: What’s something you’ve seen during your work that’s had the biggest impact on you?
Veronica: Seeing change happen on the ground - how skeptical farmers can be initially when talking about regenerative agriculture practices to after they try it. After witnessing the difference in their soil and produce first-hand, they are convinced and become advocates and share their learnings and experience with other farmers!! 🙂
Some of the farmers Veronica works with in Xinjiang, learning how to compost
Part Two: Organic vs Conventional Cotton
“Organic cotton production still accounts for less than one percent of overall cotton production worldwide”
Eva: What’s the difference between organic and conventional cotton? How do farming practices differ?
Veronica: Organic cotton is grown using processes designed to sustain the health of people, the soil and ecosystems. This is achieved by relying on natural rather than artificial inputs. This systematic approach combines tradition with innovation and science to promote better quality of life for farmers and consumers alike.
Simply put, organic cotton is grown without toxic chemicals and GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But actually - a conscious effort to grow healthier crops is maintained throughout the entire production cycle.
Image from http://aboutorganiccotton.org
Eva: What effects does conventional cotton farming have on the environment?
Veronica: 67% of the total cotton production in China comes from Xinjiang (amounting to ~10% of the world's supply). So we can look there as an example to understand the direct impacts on the environment.
With cotton being one of the world’s dirtiest and thirstiest crops, large quantities of various kinds of chemical products like fertilizers, pesticides, and plastic films, are required - as well as high water consumption. Agriculture is the largest water user in Xinjiang. Over a third of the Tarim River Basin faces ‘extremely high’ water stress. Unsustainable farming practices are exacerbating Xinjiang’s severe water loss and soil degradation conditions. 5.5 GT of terrestrial water storage is lost annually in Xinjiang due to increases in irrigated cropland. 48% of Xinjiang’s soil is salt-affected due to inappropriate land and water resource management.
“25-30% of the total pesticides produced in China are used for cotton”
Conventional cotton farming has HUGE impacts on the environment - both at a local and global scale.
Eva: What are the implications if we continue conventional cotton farming?
Veronica: According to FAO, about a third of the world's soil has already been degraded. We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming. Generating 3cm of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continues, all of the world's topsoil could be gone within 60 years!!
“We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming”
Veronica showed us the difference organic processes have on the soil and the contrast is jaw-dropping! From left to right: soil using compost, using chemical fertilizers and using commercial organic fertilizer.
Farmers working with conventional cotton are exposed to hundreds of dangerous materials.
Part Three: Myth Busting
Eva: If cotton is grown without chemical pesticides, does this mean it’s dirty and full of insects?
Veronica: Not true!! Organic cotton needs to meet the same quality standards. Organic farmers use integrated pest management and biological control so it's not full of insects.
Eva: What’s the biggest barrier to convincing consumers to switch to organic cotton?
Veronica: Lack of awareness and the price.
Eva: Why is organic cotton more expensive?
Veronica: Put yourself in a farmer's shoe. Imagine if you've been relying on these chemicals for decades and decades, (which are slowly destroying your soil and you need to put more and more of them to maintain the same yield and keep away the pests). To do organic, you need to stop using all of these chemicals all at once? By that time, your soil may be so depleted that you need a large amount of organic fertilizer, which you may not be able to afford or even have access to.
You need to learn all sorts of new ways to control pests and weeds which may be more labor intensive, and there is a big risk that your production will drop. On top of that, non-GMO seeds are so rare and the risk of contamination is very high if your neighbors are all still growing conventional cotton. Farmers are stuck in this self-perpetuating cycle where they know chemicals are bad, for both the environment and their health, but they feel they have no other choice. There are huge risks involved in transitioning towards organic and, depending on the condition of their soil, farmers are very likely faced with increasing costs and decreasing productivity, especially in their first few years of transitioning. If you are a farmer, what will you do?
Human behavior is at the root of every major conservation and development challenge. Changing our behavior is the single most important thing we can do to ensure nature’s survival. Rare uses insights from behavioral science to motivate people and communities to adopt behaviors that benefit people and nature. We then work with partners to bring these solutions to scale.
That’s what makes us Rare.