Sat, May 06, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Australian cotton farmers struggle with sustainability

The ever-thirsty industry is investing in the latest water-efficiency measures, but that may not be enough as savings drive production increases and climate change negatively affects the environment

By Max Opray  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Lance Liu

The flecks of white speckled across the parched brown landscape of the Murray-Darling basin appear dramatically out of place — some kind of wintertime miracle in the southeastern Australian bush.

On closer inspection it is not snow, but something equally alien to this harsh environment: fluffy wads of cotton.

The major river system of the world’s driest inhabited continent somehow sustains this thirsty cash crop — the WWF estimates that 2,700 liters of water can be used to produce a single cotton T-shirt.

Australian conditions have pushed local farmers to become the most efficient in the game, using high-tech innovations to improve water productivity by more than 40 percent in a decade.

Yet critics note that saved water is simply reinvested in producing ever-more cotton, rather than released back into a once-mighty river network crippled by increasingly erratic rainfall since the turn of the millennium.

Both sides have turned to science to support their position — indeed both to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, which simultaneously serves as both savior and prophet of doom for the cotton industry.

The agency has developed varieties specially adapted to Australia’s climate, disease threats and nutrient availability, CSIRO business development director for agriculture and food Lionel Henderson said.

“When I first got involved in [the] cotton industry during the early ‘80s, two bales to an acre [0.4 hectares] was standard — now five to an acre is the target,” he said. “The breeding program has helped [the] industry expand, particularly into southern New South Wales and northern Victoria — there is generally going to be water available in one of the different rivers, so by broadening the base you minimize the impact [of low rainfall in a particular region].”

The challenging nature of Australia’s conditions has led to CSIRO-bred varieties being used in similar dry climates around the world.

CSIRO has worked with companies including Monsanto Co to roll out genetically modified varieties over the past two decades, with genetically modified cotton today making up more than 99 percent of the crop.

“Monsanto develop the traits, we then work with Monsanto to incorporate those traits into varieties we are breeding,” Henderson said.

He says the main rivals to Australian growers are not foreign cotton producers, but manufacturers of other fibers. In terms of water use, cotton’s rivals are certainly more efficient, from natural fibers including hemp to synthetics such as polyester, which represents less than 0.1 percent of cotton’s water footprint, according to a 1999 AUTEX Research Journal study by Eija Kalliala and Pertti Nousiainen.

An Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner, Jonathan La Nauze, is more interested in another area of CSIRO work — the agency’s climate change research, which forecasts a dramatic rise in extreme weather events such as droughts and heatwaves, and a sharp drop in winter and spring rainfall across southern Australia.

“We’re already the driest part of the world and water use is a key concern — cotton uses a hell of a lot of it,” La Nauze said. “Growers are aggressively trying to increase [the] amount they can take rather than accept the current amount as the upper limit. We saw the Darling River stop flowing for months this year — extraordinary and avoidable.”

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