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Regenerative Wool: restoring Patagonia’s Grasslands with sheep

Patagonia Grasslands are facing desertification because of years of overgrazing and hard weather conditions, but Regenerative Grazing can be the solution

Restoring grasslands: one of those environments at risk

In the Fashion Industry, wool is a highly used textile, prized for its warmth, durability, and wrinkle resistance. Wool is also known for its impact on the environment – from greenhouse emissions to land degradation and water pollution, not to mention animal welfare. Patagonian grasslands witnessed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries an expansion of sheep farming, making these regions one of the world’s foremost sheep farming areas. As a result of years of overgrazing, grasslands are now one of those environments at risk. To cope with this issue, farmers are opting for regenerative wool practices to address wool production’s climate and environmental impact. Nearly 90% of the grassland in southern Argentina is privately owned. Most of this region is used for grazing sheep, raised primarily for their wool and to produce some of the finest merino in the world—to be sold on international markets. Overgrazing and practices of severe exploitation of the ground, in addition to vegetation loss, equate to lost habitat for indigenous animals and damage waterways by polluting them with runoff and silt from erosion. Along with overgrazing, the dry climate, strong winds, and cold winters are natural contributors to the desertification processes. These environmental factors, paired with conventional grazing management, have resulted in severe consequences. Many ranches, for instance, were abandoned because of the impoverishment of the natural habitat. Many brands and farmers are taking action, and one of the solutions they found is regenerative wool. When asked about regenerative wool and regenerative agriculture, Shona Quinn, Director of Sustainability for Eileen Fisher, explains: «Agriculture is a practice done by people, and the outcome is food or -in this case – fiber for people. A large aspect of farming is the connections between people and the cultivation of natural land», she continues. «There are many ways to cultivate the land. Regenerative practices are viewed with a wider lens that includes the animals and the whole environment like plants, insects, soil, water, and carbon. It’s a holistic way of farming – mimicking nature to sustain all living systems for the long term».

Addressing wool production’s climate and environmental impact

Regenerative wool is a wool fiber obtained with a new approach to agriculture that tries to replicate all those dynamics that would naturally happen in an ecosystem, so grasslands – which sheep ranchers have overgrazed for many years – can be restored to a healthier state. «The way a fiber is grown can hurt or help the land», states Quinn. «It depends on the management practices a landowner implements. Patagonia grasslands’ dry, harsh climate contributes to the desertification problem, but mimicking nature and following a sustainable grazing model can restore grasslands. The ranches we work with follow a grassland certification (Grassland Regeneration and Sustainable Standard, also known as GRASS) for regenerative grazing in support of biodiversity and long term health of the land and community».The GRASS standard has been developed for the Patagonia region and focuses on the long term restoration of the grasslands by encouraging the management of grazing practices and participating farms to follow a management plan which involves conservation measures, rangeland and grazing management, protection of unique and high-valued areas, and grassland restoration activities. Land conditions are then measured with the help of a set of indicators, including site stability, water, nutrient cycle health, and community dynamics. Each farm also conducts ongoing monitoring and annual assessments to track progress towards management goals.

The desertification in Patagonia Grasslands

Lampoon review: desertification as an environmental problem

Since poor ranching management is a strong driver of desertification, Patagonia’s 400 million acres of temperate grasslands provide ecosystem services, including clean air and water, forage for livestock, carbon sequestration, and habitat for wildlife; for this reason, Grass standard supports sustainable production and livelihoods, while maintaining and restoring the health of grasslands. Patagonia’s unique and complex grasslands are among the most damaged areas in the world, as roughly twenty meters acres have been abandoned. At the same time, desertification is the most significant environmental problem in this area, with climate models that project around ten or twenty percent less precipitation over northern Patagonia by the end of the century, being the Andes area the most affected by this projected decrease in rainfall (Natalia, P., Silvia, F., Silvina, S. et al., Climate change in northern Patagonia: critical decrease in water resources). To fight climate change and restore grasslands, brands and farmers follow regenerative management practices, where the sheep grazing model aerates the soil and adds nutrients to it. «The plants grow and build up the capacity to absorb excess carbon and restore the ecosystems», explains Quinn. It’s not only about the land though. This holistic approach to grassland management also impacts farmers and their families: «in 2020, seventy-nine percent of our wool product comes from farms that are certified to the Responsible Wool Standard, and thirty-five percent of those certified the RWS, also follow the Grass Certification that focuses on sustainable rangeland management», states Quinn. «We partnered with Native Energy on a carbon insetting program to provide the capital needed to help farmers adjust their land management practices to a regenerative approach that benefits the local ecosystem, the productivity of their land for grazing sheep, and the climate». According to Native Energy, the project is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 100,000 tons over its 30-year operating life. As this initiative expands to include additional partners and other farms and regions, they expect carbon emissions reductions to reach 50,000 tons per year. Also, since regenerative wool sourcing requires higher intensity rotational grazing, the project aims to imitate recovery periods of migratory herbivores. This transition involves fencing, active livestock management, and building water infrastructure to supply potential pastures previously not viable. These steps can be challenging for farmers but are vital components of allowing perennial grasses, native species, and riparian zones to regenerate. 

Soil’s resilience to extreme weather condition

The result is improved productivity and profitability of livestock, nutrient density, biodiversity and soil health, including a soil’s resilience to extreme weather conditions which are common in the region, such as drought or floods, and better water quality within the watershed. As Quinn explains, grasslands and animals have a symbiotic relationship that needs to be preserved and encouraged by supporting regenerative farming practices. «Grasslands can help fight climate change, and restoring them via progressing methods is vital». The regenerative wool itself is biodegradable, as clarifies Quinn, and this is a further step taken to protect the environment. «Biodegradation speed is limited by how readily the material is accessible to microbial attack. Many wool products nowadays have anti-felting treatment, which involves using a polymer coating. This polymer coating helps to keep the fiber surface smooth and prevents felting. At the same time, it is also a barrier to microbes that would naturally break down the fiber. We have been working with our suppliers to experiment with alternative anti-felt treatment, and some of our washable wool products are not coated». The concept of regenerative grazing remains controversial; ecologists often blame livestock for degrading the world’s grasslands, as it happened in the Amazon forest, and according to a 2006 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 20% of grasslands are degraded through overgrazing. The responsible animal management encouraged by Grass, and livestock rotating in a different area to eat grass at the right time in its growth for the right amount of time, emulating the behavior of wild animals, without overgrazing the plants and degrading the soil can help to restore Patagonia grasslands; also, thanks to this rotation plan, the migrating trampling of sheeps’ hooves help to break the land’s surface, so it can absorb rain, helping prevent desertification processes.

Shona Quinn 

is Director of Sustainability at Eileen Fisher, a fashion brand involved in supporting the environment, human rights, and initiatives for women and girls worldwide. With regenerative wool, the Eileen Fisher brand committed to fighting climate change by restoring grasslands in Patagonia and encouraging progressive animal welfare practices.

Maria Bellotto

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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