Spinning a Yarn

cotton plant

Credit: iStockphoto

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The fabric of industry

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, cotton provides an income for approximately one billion people in 80 countries worldwide.

Australia is the seventh-largest producer of cotton in the world and, in a normal year, the cotton industry generates A$1.2 billion of export income (nearly all of Australia's cotton is exported and processed overseas).

"It is an industry directly responsible for 10,000 jobs in Australia and is the lifeblood of a lot of country towns," says Adam Kay, chief executive of Cotton Australia, the peak industry body for the country's cotton growers. "It is a very important industry to regional communities."

Important as it may be, Australia's cotton industry, most of which is centred in New South Wales and Queensland, has a questionable track record.

For years, particularly during the 1990s, the industry came under sustained criticism for its intensive use of chemicals, its copious use of water and its contribution to land degradation.

In 1998, beef shipments destined for overseas markets were rejected because of the discovery of traces of endosulfan - a pesticide that was commonly sprayed in the farming of conventional cotton.

Blood tests carried out on cotton workers in 1991 revealed evidence of exposure to pesticides; and rivers and waterways were polluted resulting in the death of thousands of fish.

"The industry still gets tarred with the past but we have made huge environmental inroads," says Kay. "And a lot of environmental groups acknowledge the great work that we have done and acknowledge the current environmental management systems in place."

Jeff Bidstrup, a cotton farmer from Warra in Queensland, has been growing cotton for over 20 years. "I used to be a bit embarrassed to call myself a cotton grower owing to the amount of chemicals we used," he says.

"But we have come so far in a short space of time and I'm proud to call myself a cotton grower. It makes me feel good about what we've done."

So what has changed in the cotton industry?

"We started growing genetically modified cotton," says Bidstrup.

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