Can the CSIRO, WWF and technology fix the Australian cotton industry?

Australia’s important cotton industry is investing in the latest water-efficiency measures, but will this be enough? CSIRO, Cotton Australia, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and new technology might provide the answers, writes Max Opray.

The flecks of white speckled across the parched brown landscape of the Murray-Darling basin appear dramatically out of place – some kind of wintertime miracle in the Australian bush. On closer inspection it is not snow, but something equally alien to this harsh environment: fluffy wads of cotton.

The major river system of the world’s driest inhabited continent somehow sustains this thirsty cash crop – the WWF estimates that 2,700 litres of water can be used to produce a single cotton T-shirt. Australian conditions have pushed local farmers to become the most efficient in the game, using hi-tech innovations to improve water productivity by more than 40% in a decade.

Yet critics note that saved water is simply reinvested in producing ever-more cotton, rather than released back into a once-mighty river network crippled by increasingly erratic rainfall since the turn of the millennium. Both sides have turned to science to support their position – indeed both to the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, which simultaneously serves as both saviour and prophet of doom for the cotton industry.

Lionel Henderson, the business development director for CSIRO agriculture and food, says the agency has developed varieties specially adapted to Australia’s climate, disease threats and nutrient availability.

“When I first got involved in cotton industry during the early 80s, two bales to an acre was standard – now five to an acre is the target,” he says.

“The breeding program has helped industry expand, particularly into southern New South Wales and northern Victoria – there is generally going to be water available in one of the different rivers, so by broadening the base you minimise the impact [of low rainfall in a particular region].”

The challenging nature of Australia’s conditions has led to CSIRO-bred varieties being used in similar dry climates around the world. The CSIRO has worked with companies including Monsanto to roll out genetically modified varieties over the past two decades, with GM cotton today making up more than 99% of the crop.

“Monsanto develop the traits, we then work with Monsanto to incorporate those traits into varieties we are breeding,” Henderson says.

He says the main rivals to Australian growers are not foreign cotton producers but manufacturers of other fibres. In terms of water use, cotton’s rivals are certainly more efficient, from natural fibres including hemp to synthetics such as polyester, which represents less than 0.1% of cotton’s water footprint, according to a 1999 AUTEX Research Journal study by Eija Kalliala and Pertti Nousiainen.

An Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner, Jonathan La Nauze, is more interested in another area of CSIRO work – the agency’s climate change research, which forecasts a dramatic rise in extreme weather events such as droughts and heatwaves, and a sharp drop in winter and spring rainfall across southern Australia.

“We’re already the driest part of the world and water use is a key concern – cotton uses a hell of a lot of it,” he says.

“Growers are aggressively trying to increase amount they can take rather than accept the current amount as the upper limit. We saw the Darling river stop flowing for months this year – extraordinary and avoidable.”

“The impacts on native fish and water birds have been severe, and significant opportunities to improve downstream communities have been missed – and that’s before factoring in the CSIRO’s global warming scenarios of a reduction of water availability in the northern basin.”

La Nauze welcomes Cotton Australia’s measures to improve water efficiency but says it isn’t much help to the environment if the saved water doesn’t get shared around. “The dividend should be a long-term sustainable river system – if you kill that system, you won’t have an industry,” he says.

Cotton Australia’s chief executive, Adam Kay, says asking growers to pass the dividends of improved efficiencies on to the environment is “a ridiculous thing to say” given it is farmers making the investments in the first place.

“We’ve got to help the public understand about this perception that cotton is somehow thirsty – it is a normal plant like soybeans or corn, uses about the same amount of water,” he says.

“The issue is people with the best access to water choose to grow cotton as it offers the best return – that water would still be used to grow other crops if cotton wasn’t there.”

But even Cotton Australia’s own promotional material acknowledges that the crop’s irrigation requirement of eight megalitres a hectare is the second-most water intensive in Australia, behind rice (12ML per hectare), but ahead of alternatives such as nurseries or cut flowers (5ML).

Analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals both the dramatic ebbs and flows of cotton production in response to water supply, and the continuing intensity of water use despite the progress made. During the water-scarce season of 2014-15, cotton sales represented 1.7% of Australia’s agricultural commodity value but used 12.2% of its water. In the more favourable conditions of 2013-14, cotton generated 3.9% of agriculture profits but in the process devoured 24% of the water diverted to agriculture.

Kay says the industry has left no stone unturned in its quest for water savings and improved yield. Innovations include electromagnetic meters and soil moisture probes to monitor the need for irrigation, the laser-levelling of fields to ensure water drains evenly, weather forecasting software to know how much crop can be sustained before planting, thermal imaging to identify leaks, lining channels with non-porous materials to minimise seepage, autonomous spray rigs, and tailwater recycling programs.

“We are on the cusp of incredible things with IoT technologies and digital agriculture,” he says.

“We are using individual pieces [of data gathering] right now – it is commonplace to use drones to monitor crops and look for weed outbreaks, but the time is coming to link data from drones to data from the cotton picker to data in soil tests field and the canopy sensors – [but] once you link it all up, you can drive incredible decision making.”

The reliance on new technology has thrown up new challenges for farmers: Kay notes that regional internet coverage is inadequate, and also that growers need to develop new tech-savvy skill sets.

He says Cotton Australia’s investment of $20m a year into research and development can also help deal with the biggest new challenge of all: climate change.

“We have research and development projects going on looking at impacts – tents out in the field to see what higher CO2 does to the crop, work on water use efficiency for potential scarcity in the future, and managing increased temperature,” he says.

Cotton Australia is encouraging farmers to becoming accredited with the global Better Cotton Initiative, a framework founded by the WWF that requires members to meet stringent sustainability criteria – not to mention marketing rules. They must promote their cotton using a selection of pre-approved phrases, including: “The Better Cotton Initiative exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.”

This article was originally published by Guardian Australia. Find out more about supporting the Guardian here.

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