The processes behind our food supply often feel like they are shrouded in mystery, hidden from view and difficult to truly imagine. This much is certainly true of the technical textile, an element of agriculture few of us are aware of but which has long played a vital role in producing our food.
However, at a time when the world’s biggest democracy is making technical textiles a key feature of their global trade and export strategy, critics say it is long past time we ditch the materials.
Until now, much of the conversation on improving the sustainability of textiles has focused on the industries themselves: How can fashion source its materials more sustainably? How do we reduce the impact of producing textiles on the environment? For many, removing one textile altogether, though — the technical textile — may be part of the answer.
India is investing hugely in this industry, a decision backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.
So what are technical textiles? There are two main types of textiles that fall into this bracket. Agrotextiles are used in agriculture and horticulture, while geotextiles are used mainly to protect soil and to prevent weeds from growing, among other things. Technically, geotextiles are a type of agrotextile.
Farmers and agriculturalists use geotextiles to help separate crops, reinforce boundaries, and to protect and help drain soils. They can be made from natural and synthetic materials, including polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene and they are manufactured in three different ways: woven, non-woven and knitted.
Agrotextiles protect crops against weather, help to conserve water, resist solar and ultraviolet radiation, and guard against other micro-organisms. These materials are valued for their strength, stability and long life, which means they don’t wear out easily. They can be made from jute, viscose, cotton, wool, sisal, viscose, hemp and coir, as well as various plastics and plastic composites. Mulch mats to block weeds, nets to protect crops from wildlife and infection, shielding plants from the wind, and irrigation tubes to keep crops well-watered, are all good examples of agrotextiles.
Both textiles protect and maintain crops so that they can still achieve good yields without falling victim to the elements. They can also enhance sustainability by reducing farmers’ reliance on energy, land and chemicals. These textiles can also reduce food waste: they increase the quality and uniformity of crops and reduce natural staining, which makes them more enticing and appealing to consumers. In turn, supermarkets will accept more of a farmer’s harvest, and less food is wasted before it gets to the supermarket, or is thrown out by customers discouraged by supposed imperfections.
While they helped to raise the soil temperature as intended, the cotton plants couldn’t break through, which in turn saw nutgrass weeds proliferate. The problems didn’t end there.
The technical textiles industry is growing rapidly, as the world looks for new ways to ensure food security amid global unpredictability and escalating shocks to the system. India is investing hugely in this industry, a decision backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration. They started the National Technical Textiles Mission in 2020 with the aim of becoming the global leader in technical textiles by 2024.
As technical textiles currently constitute more than 13% of the country’s exports, as well as their biggest employer after agriculture, India’s targeted growth rate of 15% to 20% a year could make this happen. They’ve even created specifications and guidelines for 377 types of technical textile. To promote this growth within the country, technical textiles have been made mandatory across 10 ministries, encompassing 92 areas of production. This raises the question of whether a mandate to use anything is the right decision in a world where sustainability should now be the ultimate aim.
Dr Oliver Knox, associate professor of soil systems biology at the University of New England, knows that this is an area of rapid change. He explained that when he was farming in 2004, newly created mulches included a plastic base, which made them difficult to place over a seed bed. While they helped to raise the soil temperature as intended, the cotton plants couldn’t break through, which in turn saw nutgrass weeds proliferate.
The problems didn’t end there.
When the material deteriorated, large sections of the plastic would blow around the field, even leaving the farm at some points. This plastic was replaced by material made from starch polymers which biodegrade, unlike plastic. Although in order to biodegrade UV stabilizers are required, and the fabric must be at the right stage of degradation to harvest the crop.
If these mulches are made correctly then they have the potential to make farming processes more sustainable. “The purpose of the mulch is to raise seed-bed temperature to mitigate early-season disease, improve germination and ideally help with early season water conservation,” says Knox.
Rockwool slabs are another common textile used in the horticulture industry. “They permit good root development, water movement and are not restrictive to nutrient availability,” he explains. The issue comes at the end of their use when they cannot be recycled or reused and end up in landfill, making rockwool, and the plastic wrapping that it comes in, essentially a single-use product.
The fact that technical textiles can become single-use products is why many critics say they need to be phased out.
Patrick Lydon, Director at City As Nature, says that “there is no compelling reason to be using geo or agrotextiles in farming.” Lydon says that nature, and specifically nature-based solutions (NbS), can outperform technical textiles at every juncture. “When farming is done with a holistic approach (such as natural farming, permaculture, agroecology, regenerative or organic) natural materials and processes provide these solutions without the need for industrial fabrics or chemicals.”
For Lydon, much of what agrotextiles and geotextiles seek to mitigate against — the effects of climate shifts, severe weather events, soil erosion, and the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides — can be achieved through these NbS systems. We know this in part because they have done so for centuries of human agriculture. NbS solutions would encourage biodiversity in crops, cover cropping, mulching, non-tillage, and creating natural resilience within ecosystems.
Lydon acknowledges the “big gap” between agrotextile production and accepted sustainable farming methodology.
“There’s a tradeoff between wanting something that biodegrades eventually and wanting something that can be used over and over and has a long useful life.”
“The only application I could see for agrotextiles, is if farmers desired to grow something in a place it is not naturally supposed to grow, but if that is the case, we probably couldn't call it sustainable,” he concludes.
Rebecca Sideman, a sustainable horticulture state specialist at the University of New Hampshire, thinks that “natural materials make excellent textiles.” However, she acknowledges that the features needed for farming conditions outdoors like strength, UV resistance and various other natural factors mean plastic materials are often preferred.
“There’s a tradeoff between wanting something that biodegrades eventually and wanting something that can be used over and over and has a long useful life.” In the northeast United States, reliance on these textiles is increasing, because row covers can protect crops from sunburn or frost and reduce insecticide use.
One new alternative to plastic mulches is a sprayable biodegradable polymer membrane which has been developed in Australia and helps farmers use less water, nutrients and chemicals.
Technical textiles represent a huge area of innovation, and they can help clean up agriculture by improving water efficiency and reducing the need to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But in the long run, they, too, will likely need to be phased out, if agriculture is to be truly sustainable.