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Spinning a Yarn

cotton plant

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Cotton Australia, however, doesn't believe there is any reason for concern.

"There is an enormous amount of research demanded by regulators [of GM cotton] before farmers are allowed to grow it," says Kay. "It is not just some willy nilly 'if I develop something I can put it out there' scenario. Exhaustive testing is carried out before it can be released and the public needs to understand that."

"We have been growing GM cotton for nearly 12 years and there's absolutely no downside to it at all," says Bidstrup. "We have not had a hint of a problem."

Natural selection

With such controversies surrounding GM cotton and a general increased environmental awareness worldwide, why aren't Australian farmers experimenting with organic cotton?

Using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment, supporters of organic cotton see it as being the most natural and least harmful way to farm.

Since 2001, the global organic cotton fibre supply has quadrupled and organic cotton sales have increased by about 35 per cent annually worldwide.

Turkey, India, Egypt and the US are some of the biggest producers of organic cotton but in Australia, according to the BFA, the country's largest representative organic body, in 2007, there were only two farmers growing the crop organically.

"Back in the 1990s we were offered three times the price of ordinary white cotton to grow organic," says Bidstrup.

"Myself and a partner had just bought a farm that had not been sprayed for several years so we planted 700 acres of organic cotton... but we got nothing. It was a very bad year for insects and it was a total disaster. We did 17 sprays with organic products trying to save the crop but in the end we mulched the lot. I lost around a quarter of a million dollars out of it."

"I have worked with a number of growers that have tried organic cotton," says Kay. "It costs a lot more to grow, they only got about a third of the yield and couldn't get a return on the lint that justified that. There is not the market out there for organic cotton. If the market was willing to pay more for it then I think growers would try it."

According to Bidstrup, one of the main reasons there is not a competitive organic cotton market is because GM cotton has increased yields in countries such as India by 50 per cent, thereby driving world cotton prices down.

Nick Barclay, one of the founders of the Australian company Organic Cotton Advantage, which makes certified organic cotton T-shirts, doesn't agree.

"Our demand is going through the roof," says Barclay. "We believe that Australia could be regarded as one of the best organic cotton producers in the world. We have got the most certifiable organic land in the world and we're a country of smart farmers."

"I think if we look at what is happening overseas, it is indicative of an [organic] industry that, in the last 10 years, has just kept growing and growing," says Andrew Monk, BFA Standards Committee chairman. "We are behind here in Australia: we're overusing water, we do use lots of pesticides, and we have a lot of environmental challenges."

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