Cotton is the world’s “dirtiest crop” – with a huge environmental and social impact on our planet. Now one startup in London is looking at how tech could help make production more sustainable and transparent.
The topic of plastic has received a lot of attention in recent years. But the issue isn’t just plastic bottles on the beach or floating plastic bags in the sea. A large part of the plastic in our environment – and above all in the oceans – is found in the form of microplastic, i.e. small (sometimes microscopically small) plastic particles. A report by the World Conservation Organization (IUCN) estimates that of the 1.5 million tons of microplastics that enter the sea every year, about 35 percent are produced by washing synthetic clothing. One solution is to produce more clothing from natural fibres such as cotton – rather than artificial fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic.
But cotton, unfortunately, is also not without its own problems. Producing these natural fibres requires huge amounts of water and arable land. And production is usually located in regions where both of these resources are scarce. And aside from the problematic consumption of water, a lot of artificial fertilizers and pesticides are also used. No other agricultural product uses as many pesticides as cotton: although cotton is cultivated on only 2.5 percent of the world’s available agricultural land, 16 percent of all insecticides are used to grow it.
There is such a thing as pesticide-free cotton of course – cotton certified as “organic” is grown without the use of chemicals. In 2016, 107,980 tons of organic cotton fibers were produced in 18 countries – but that ultimately corresponds to less than one percent of global production. That’s why the London-based startup HydroCotton is currently working on a technology for growing cotton that uses 80 percent less water than conventional cultivation methods – and completely without artificial fertilizers and pesticides. And last but not least: they’re also working on making the supply chain more transparent, tracing the journey of the cotton all the way from the grower to the end consumer.
Sustainable cotton thanks to sensors, blockchain & co
HydroCotton is currently growing cotton in a research lab in South London and developing a technology for cotton agriculture that allows them to reduce the volume of water and fertiliser used by up to 80%. This is primarily achieved by delivering water and nutrients directly to the roots of the plants, rather than over a large area – and then recovering any nutrients and water that hasn’t immediately been absorbed. No pesticides are used at all. Instead, alternative pest control methods are used. Sensors embedded in the growing system make it possible to monitor the sustainability of the crop. And HydroCotton is currently looking into various options, including blockchain and smart tagging to keep track of the cotton as it moves throughout the supply chain.
The team (a group of engineers and designers who met Imperial College and at the Royal College of Art) started testing their technology in November 2018. HydroCotton set out to grow two cotton varieties, cultivated the plants to maturity, artificially pollinated the flowers and achieved a successful cotton harvest without pesticides. As the test was carried out in England, artificial light was used throughout the winter and the first harvest took place at the end of May 2019. The aim is to not only grow, as the team behind the concept put it, “radically sustainable cotton”, but also develop concepts that provide sustainability credentials along the supply chain – providing farmers with a tool to demonstrate their sustainable farming practices and ensuring the production of low impact cotton from the farm to the fashion company.
This is a translation of an original article which first appeared on RESET’s German-language site.