I'm just back from a wonderful week spent in the company of Cotton Australia, with farmers and the industry up in Narrabri, as well as at the Sydney conference. There's a lot to unpick here, longest blog ever, so go get yourself a cuppa.
As usual, these visits are incredibly informative, there's nothing like visiting the actual facilities and hearing the passion of the people who work in our local cotton industry, but I know there's still a strong negative perception around growing cotton here. Me and 45 other delegates from Australia, the US, Italy, China, Japan, Indonesia, Germany to name a few, set out to learn what makes Australian Cotton the most efficient in the world.
To begin, let me say I can't use Australian Cotton anyway because since Bonds took production offshore 20 years ago, Australia's only spinning mill shut down. Now the large brands lock in cotton by the bale, which they ship to a second country to spin, and then send to their manufacturing base. Whatever your view on Australian Cotton, it's a tragedy we can no longer onshore spinning. I use organic cotton grown in Turkey. We don't grow organic here as it takes 3 times the water, which is the nub of the issue here, cotton is a thirsty plant. With the addition of GM traits in Australia, as well as advanced technologies in deciding when to water (think lots of 1m long spikes able to read moisture at every 10cm level, controlled by an iphone to determine when plants really need the water) as well as constantly testing how plants survive with slightly less, water usage is now 52% of what it was in the 90s.
My personal relationship with Australian Cotton has been around sustainability, and particularly my work on the Australian Standard for Textile Composting. CA's pioneering work on increasing circularity has seen it take part in some great research which has demonstrated the positive impact applying cotton waste on to cotton fields has on the crop - as both a fertiliser and a mulch. There's more about this here. It's research which informs our work on the Standard.
There's a lot to get through here so let's start!
The Farms and Farmers
What can I say about the growers? The best people, many of whom have farmed there for generations and care deeply for the land. Generous, articulate, passionate and well educated (more likely to be tertiary educated than other agriculture) and 30% are women. The family farms demonstrated a strong appreciation, and adoption of, the biodiversity advice programmes that CA devises to suit the geographies of particular farms. Cotton provides the best cash return on any crop and so farmers try and grow some when there's enough water. It's their choice, no-one polices who grows cotton and who grows wheat, it's up to them. Last year was the 2nd best year ever for cotton yield, 2019 during the droughts, was the worst ever. Hardly anyone planted any cotton as there was no water. Water is saved for nut trees (think almond milk) also water-hungry but not an annual crop so therefore will die without water allocation. The farm provided us with lunch in the cotton fields, a beautiful setting. No mean feat for over 50 people!
The commercial farm we visited was very different. On an incomprehensible scale, it lacked biodiversity and you wouldn't want to be a bee taking a wrong turn there. Most of us were shocked by that place, as efficient as it is in global cotton production terms, it felt like the commoditisation of nature and that doesn't feel good. Many of us gave feedback at the end that biodiversity was something that really needed to be worked on in the next 5 years, particularly in the larger commercial farms.
Narrabri is the home of the Cotton Research and Development Centre which started in the 70s. We had a great time being shown the ropes and how science has allowed the industry to become so efficient.
Firstly, a little about GM. I gotta say, the idea of GM has always filled me with horror. It still kind of does but now I understand at a cellular level what it can do, I realise it's an imperfect world and without it, we wouldn't be able to grow many things, cotton in particular, but wheat is mostly GM here now too.
We met a fascinating german entomologist who explained that in the 90s, they used to have to spray crops for insects 30 times a season - yes that's only 6 months!!! This killed off the Beneficial insects - spiders, ladybirds etc which meant more spraying. By introducing a new genetic trait with a specific protein that acts on insect receptors into the seed, they were able to create a product which when ingested, killed the bad insects so they couldn't reproduce, and they would die.
This trait all but stopped spraying which allowed the beneficial insects to thrive, increasing biodiversity, and meaning that crops are now sprayed just twice, later on in the season, instead of 30 times. When you hear this stuff, it makes great sense. Without this trait you poison all the insects or you have no crop. I don't love GM still, but I get what it does. Over decades, additional traits have been added for other insects and also to increase the water efficiency of the plants.
We also saw drones that can drop wasp eggs onto crops to destroy specific predators!
We met a passionate cotton breeder - yes, you got that right, breeding cotton is a full time job! All bright young things (lots of women) with PhDs, this woman explained how they went about breeding the highest performing plants to increase efficiency across the crop, or to breed in a resistance to a particular disease or predator.
We were lucky enough to visit Australia's largest seed distribution centre, where the best of the best seeds are produced and it was a big day because we all got to wear hard hats and flouro vests. The below is the set up which de-lints the seeds. Lint stays on the seed to prevent it germinating for 6 months in the natural habitat, until the next growing season, but in this organised structure, the lint needs to come off to ensure that the seed grows as soon as it is planted. The below massive apparatus converts hydrochloric acid into gas for this process, then returns the fluid to Brisbane to be converted back to liquid acid in a circular process.
Seeds are then sorted by weight and size, the best ones being kept and tested many times, before they are potentially treated according to the particular needs of the farm where they are being planted. The farmer's land is tested and conditions ascertained, and if it's all ok, no treatments are added. If however it is dry, or there's a particular issue with soil or predators, seeds can be coated with a number of treatments which ensure the maximum potential for success in that geography. Seeds are tailor-made for farms, to avoid using unnecessary additives. This is all done in a facility the size of an aircraft hanger or 3 as below. At present, no treatment is happening, so the hanger is almost empty!
At this point it's feeling like 90% science rather than farming, right? It mostly is, hence we have the most technologically advanced cotton growing anywhere. Albeit somewhat lacking in biodiversity in parts...
I get that it's unpopular, but I also totally get what it does really well. I've nothing to compare it to but many of the other delegates clearly did. The transparency is compelling and the people in the industry are just the best. Would I use it? As above, I can't because I'm too small so that gets me off this particular hook as we head into another el nino. If I did, I'd want all my customers to see those industry specialists and family farmers advocating for what they do, why they love it, and why they believe so much in it. It's hard to not believe in the face of all that raw passion.