Feature

Spinning a Yarn

cotton plant

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Thirsty work

While the debates surrounding conventional-versus-GM-versus-organic cotton continue, one constant issue the cotton industry has had to contend with is its water usage.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and cotton is a water-thirsty crop, requiring an average 6.7 million litres to irrigate each hectare.

This begs the question, should Australia be growing cotton in the first place?

"Absolutely, we should be growing it," says Peter Cullen, founding chief executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology and a commissioner on the board of The National Water Commission.

"Cotton is an annual plant. Farmers can make the decision to plant cotton when they know what resources they've got. In the last couple of years there has not been much cotton because of the drought. If we have a lot of water then we can exploit it and grow cotton crops, and the industry is built on this basis."

"There have been misconceptions on the water issue," adds Kay. "Cotton is mid-range in its water usage. If we didn't farm cotton then farmers would grow other crops, for example soybeans, that use the same amount of water."

Cotton Australia says it is attractive to farmers because it has a high financial return.

But others argue that the industry is draining the country in order to make a profit. Furthermore, 97 per cent of the cotton grown in Australia is exported.

A report on water use on Australian farms, published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, figures show that in the year 2004-05 more water was used for irrigating cotton than any of the three previous years - a total of 1,819 billion litres (GL).

By comparison, the total household water usage for all of Australia in the same period was 2,108 GL. Cotton is second only to rice in the amount of water used to irrigate the crops.

In the end it comes down to the bottom line and if organic cotton production has yet to make a significant impact on the Australian cotton market, then other natural fibres have even further to go.

As Adam Kay says: "Farmers will grow whatever crop makes them money." For the time being at least, that appears to be GM cotton.

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