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]