Thu. Jun 30th, 2022

For years environmental groups have put the Australian cotton industry under the microscope, saying the “thirsty” crop should not be grown on the driest continent.

After decades of work, the industry now claims to be one of the most water-efficient in the world and gathered this week in Narrabri to celebrate its achievements.

Since 1992, water-use productivity by Australian cotton growers has improved by 48 per cent.

Industry claims other improvements have been made in areas like insecticide use, which has decreased by 95 per cent since 1993.

Cotton ball close up on its dried stem ready for harvest under a blue sky
Cotton growers say they are working hard to improve their sustainability. (ABC: Jessica Schremmer)

Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay said a lot of money and research had been invested to improve water efficiency in particular.

“I think our farmers many years ago recognized that water was the number-one limiting factor to irrigated crop production and so they’ve had to work over the years to drive that water-use efficiency,” he said.

That does not mean the sector is using less water, just that it is producing a lot more cotton.

Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay leans on bale of cotton
Adam Kay dismisses the idea that cotton is a “thirsty” crop.(ABC: Dominique Schwartz)

Boggabri cotton grower Andrew Watson said he had seen huge leaps made in water efficiency on his family farm.

“In 1998 we were producing about seven bales per hectare and using about 7.1 megalitres per hectare,” he said.

“Now what’s happened in the intervening 20-odd years is we’re not using any more water, and this year we’re actually expecting to pick 13 or 14 bales per hectare and we averaged 14 last year.”

A man in a blue shirt and cap stands in a paddock.
Andrew Watson has significantly improved water efficiency on his farms.(ABC Rural: Lara Webster)

Still challenges to overcome

The Nature Conservation Council is unconvinced by the cotton industry’s claims that it is sustainable.

Campaigner Melissa Gray says the industry has received billions in public money through the Murray-Darling Basin plan for new water infrastructure which is why it’s been able to improve water efficiency.

But she said it was still harvesting enormous amounts of water, for free, through floodplain harvesting.

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