Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Cotton – pulling the threads together (Part I)

It's official: cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in Australia – and that is something we can ill afford in drought stricken Australia.

The latest ABS statistics on water use by Australian farmers found that while farmers of other crops had reduced their water use in 2004–2005, that same year cotton farmers had increased their water irrigation use by 570 gigalitres from the previous year.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, "both the area irrigated and volume used [for cotton] increased by 46% on the previous year."

While rice farming remains the most water-intensive crop on average, rice farmers managed to cut their irrigation use, while cotton irrigation increased.

Why my preoccupation with cotton? I love cotton: I like wearing clothes made of cotton, preferring them over synthetic textiles most of the time. But, I'm bothered by the way cotton is grown, where it is processed and the cheap clothes manufactured with it. A shopping expedition these days reveals it is hard to find decent, good quality cotton clothing, or that isn't made by underpaid, highly repressed labour in China.

More significantly, I hate that cotton is the biggest genetically modified crop in Australia, making a lie out of some Australian states' claim to being free of GM-crops. And GM cotton allows a genetically modified food crop to enter our food-chain through a back door: GM cottonseed.

It is hard to imagine cotton as a food crop, but the seed is fed to cattle to supplement their diet. Meanwhile, when so much attention went to GM soy and canola in the debates of recent years, our fast-food outlets, supermarkets and other food processors had long been selling food cooked in GM cottonseed oil!

Not only is this highly industrialised, extremely thirsty, GM crop grown in Australia, it is grown in states – drought stricken New South Wales and Queensland – that I believe can ill-afford the water use. Queensland is in crisis, as its South-east has now reached Level 3 water restrictions, and the citizens of Toowoomba Shire are voting on whether to allow treated sewerage water to be pumped into their damns for domestic use.

In the next part of what will be a series on cotton, I will look at its history in economic and political terms, and start to think about organic cotton. If you have ideas on this or future parts, I welcome feedback.

[Image of by Tatum Shaw]

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At July 27, 2006 8:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The best overview of these issues that I have seen was put together a few years ago by the ABCs Bush Telegraph:

Some of the key issues are:

1. Less fertiliser means you need more water per kilo of cotton produced.

2. GM Cotton significantly reduces the need for chemical sprays and again reduces water per kilo of cotton produced.

3. Synthetics require huge energy consumption, and a fair bit of water as well.

4. Australian cotton uses less water than most other countries. Some of the implications of this are discussed in "virtual water" papers available on the World Water Council web site.

Note however that the potential for hemp, which uses much less water, is huge.


At July 28, 2006 10:40 am, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

But hemp is so ugly, David. Or at lease the 'worthy', 'hand-wringing' hemp clothing I've come across here in Melbourne.

And don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating synthetics over cotton in our clothing. I well appreciate their reliance on fossil fuels for energy and for the spinning of petrochemical based fibres.

But if I had to choose between GM cotton and synthetic polyfleece, I'd probably ask for wool or alpaca. Until I had to pack a bag for a camping trip.

Any idea why using less fertilizer would require more water? Is that chemical fertizers? (I thought they needed more water to enable the nutrients to be disolved and taken up by crops, but I could be wrong).

Perhaps we should turn to a more wholistic approach:
land use + water use + energy use + land degradation + salination + pollution + global warming + labour practices + exporting our textile manufacturing along with our cotton = let's try better ways to make out clothes, dress our wounds, make our paper to paint/print on, or insulate our homes that doesn't cost the earth.

Another major factor in GM cotton is the argument that it, twinned with industrial agricultural practies, produces higher yields (and so more sales). But I think we have to ask ourselves if we really need so many cheap, nasty t-shirts and pyjama sets made in China, or if we could do with fewer, well-made, longer lasting clothes. Use less, use more wisely, and re-use. And be prepared to pay for them?

At July 28, 2006 3:35 pm, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

I just checked that link and realised it's that ABC radio initiative of three years ago that allowed listeners to participate in planting a plot of cotton on a cotton farm up in Queensland. I only caught bits of it on the radio, so I'm glad to find the transcript online: it's great! Thanks for that. I'm posting the link again here:


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