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Cotton's poor public image troubles industry as concerns over water grow

By Michael Condon and David Claughton, Monday March 16, 2020 - 16:10 EDT
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The industry is working out how to respond to community concerns. - ABC

The cotton industry is having a long, hard look at itself.

Growers have copped a hammering on social media in recent times over how much water they take in the northern Murray-Darling Basin, and what part the industry may have played in the Darling River fish kills.



There is evidence, generated by the industry, that it has a poor public image.

Cotton Australia commissioned a wide-ranging survey by JP Morgan that found most urban Australians had negative perceptions about the industry.

Chief executive Adam Kay said they needed to do something about it.

"We completely accept that portions of the community have deep concerns and questions about the Australian cotton industry."

Water the big issue



Brooke Summers, Cotton Australia's supply chain consultant, said the survey revealed there were some key issues of concern.

"Unsurprisingly, water was the number one issue," she said.

The industry's reputation was not helped when charges were laid against 11 irrigators over illegal water take.

"Another perception was that the industry is corporate, that there are lots of big cotton farmers, and it wasn't particularly family-friendly," Ms Summers said.

But industry statistics suggest the opposite is true, that 90 per cent of farms are family-owned.

Survey respondents also felt the industry was closed-minded and unwilling to listen to other people's views.

Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray agreed, but said the industry needed to educate the public.

"We need to do a much better job on explaining how those resources are allocated, particularly water."

Frustration over lifting of flood plain embargo

Zara Lowien from the Gwydir Valley Irrigators said the industry was working out how to respond to community concerns about the lifting of the embargo on flood plain harvesting in February.



The NSW Government introduced the historic embargo to protect the first flush of water coming through the Northern Basin after recent rain, but decided to lift it at the last minute.

That was to ease pressure on some farms dealing with flood damage to infrastructure, but irrigators and downstream communities were irate and confused, Ms Lowien said.

"Everyone was frustrated and [irrigators] felt that they lacked a clear understanding of what the Government's intent was."

She said she wanted clear rules that irrigators could operate with.

"The challenge we had was the last-minute rule change asking people to operate their farms almost in the reverse of how they're designed."

'World leader' in water efficiency

Australia's cotton industry is, according to Cotton Australia, the most water efficient in the world.

Water-use productivity by Australian growers improved 40 per cent in the decade to 2012, it said.



Tony Quigley, a grower at Trangie in New South Wales, said he had been saving as much water as he could during the drought.

"These last three summers were the hottest I can remember, so we're looking at a system that adapts itself better to those situations," he said.

"We've been using sprinkler irrigation with a complete new farming system using cover crops for ground cover ... and zero till to increase soil carbon to produce bigger crops.

"We're producing better crops with less water, and that really is the name of the game these days, particularly as we go forward with climate change in the expectation of less available water."

Climate change credentials

The two biggest cotton-growing areas in the country — north-west NSW and southern Queensland — have experienced the extremes of climate change in recent years, such as record temperatures, more days of extreme heat, warmer nights and less rain.

It affected the flowering and setting of the crop, and a lack of water meant very little cotton could be grown.



Nick Gillingham, a farm manager at Keytah near Moree, told an open house forum that he hadn't grown any cotton this year.

"We haven't been able to pump any water out of the rivers, and we're a long way from having any irrigation water for next summer."

The national cotton crop this year will be small — about 600,000 bales, well short of the 3 million bale average.

But farmers have been pilloried for growing what some people describe as a thirsty crop unsuited to Australian conditions, and for taking water that some say is needed more downstream.

The industry has defended itself by arguing that Australia is the most efficient producer of cotton in the world and the valuable cash crop is only grown when water is available.

Cotton could be 'carbon positive'

Some farmers are also working on big projects to reduce their emissions and store carbon in soil.

Scott Morgan, a grower at Kensal Green in Gunnedah, spent $300,000 to erect a 200-kilowatt solar farm to reduce his electricity consumption.

"The carbon footprint has been reduced by 300 tonnes per annum, so you could say I have prevented two coal wagons a year from being burnt," he said.

While his cotton crop was pretty small this year, he made a return on capital from the solar farm.

"The return on capital is very good, under five years, and I'm thrilled."



Farms preserving native vegetation

While many people are worried about clearing land to grow big monocultures like cotton, some believe cotton crops could help slow climate change and preserve larger areas of native vegetation compared to other farming systems.

Dr Rhiannon Smith, research fellow and lecturer in environmental management at the University of New England, said about 40 per cent of the average cotton farm was retained as native vegetation.

Mr Morgan said that was accurate for his farm, where he could protect a riparian zone with a healthy population of kangaroos and koalas.

Meanwhile, Mr Gillingham said he was looking to reduce cattle numbers on his farm, which were adding to his emissions, and turning it back to native vegetation to claim carbon credits.

Dr Ben Macdonald from the CSIRO's Sustainability Program said converting livestock operations into cotton farms could help store carbon from the atmosphere.

"We've converted land which used to have semi-arid production, added water ... and basically changed the soil into a different system so we can grow biomass and put that into the soil and keep it there."

While the industry is moving toward zero carbon, there is a long way to go on farm, and convincing the public of its sustainability credentials may be an even tougher task.

For Mr Quigley, the key is getting people from the city into the countryside to see what happens on farm.

"So that people can actually see what we do and how we do it ... continually improving what we do, staying ahead of the game and ahead of the regulators.

"That's where we need to get to and that's where we're trying to go."


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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