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Spinning a Yarn

G Magazine

Cotton, long regarded as a pure, natural fabric is a wardrobe staple. But it's also a thirsty, chemically intensive crop, raising thorny question, should we grow it at all?

cotton plant

Credit: iStockphoto

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It seems we cannot live without cotton.

Its fibres are spun into thread and used to make the soft, breathable material that makes up the bulk of our wardrobes; its oil is found in processed foods such as salad dressings and biscuits; and its seed meal is fed to livestock.

This versatility has made it one of the most widely traded commodities on Earth and its characteristics as a fabric have made it the world's most popular natural fibre.

Although cotton has long been marketed as clean, pure and natural, the reality is that conventional cotton is one of the most chemically intensive crops on Earth and is responsible for a staggering one-tenth of pesticide use worldwide.

The simple act of growing, harvesting and processing the 450 g of cotton fibre needed to make a plain cotton T-shirt for example, requires about 150 g of chemicals.

This has an enormous impact on the Earth's soil, water and air, and can be harmful to people living and working in cotton growing and processing regions. The World Health Organisation estimates that 20,000 people die as a result of pesticide use every year, and at least three million people are poisoned (See pdf report here).

The fabric of industry

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, cotton provides an income for approximately one billion people in 80 countries worldwide.

Australia is the seventh-largest producer of cotton in the world and, in a normal year, the cotton industry generates A$1.2 billion of export income (nearly all of Australia's cotton is exported and processed overseas).

"It is an industry directly responsible for 10,000 jobs in Australia and is the lifeblood of a lot of country towns," says Adam Kay, chief executive of Cotton Australia, the peak industry body for the country's cotton growers. "It is a very important industry to regional communities."

Important as it may be, Australia's cotton industry, most of which is centred in New South Wales and Queensland, has a questionable track record.

For years, particularly during the 1990s, the industry came under sustained criticism for its intensive use of chemicals, its copious use of water and its contribution to land degradation.

In 1998, beef shipments destined for overseas markets were rejected because of the discovery of traces of endosulfan - a pesticide that was commonly sprayed in the farming of conventional cotton.

Blood tests carried out on cotton workers in 1991 revealed evidence of exposure to pesticides; and rivers and waterways were polluted resulting in the death of thousands of fish.

"The industry still gets tarred with the past but we have made huge environmental inroads," says Kay. "And a lot of environmental groups acknowledge the great work that we have done and acknowledge the current environmental management systems in place."

Jeff Bidstrup, a cotton farmer from Warra in Queensland, has been growing cotton for over 20 years. "I used to be a bit embarrassed to call myself a cotton grower owing to the amount of chemicals we used," he says.

"But we have come so far in a short space of time and I'm proud to call myself a cotton grower. It makes me feel good about what we've done."

So what has changed in the cotton industry?

"We started growing genetically modified cotton," says Bidstrup.

Faking it

The commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops — the term used for altering the DNA of plants and animals to promote desirable qualities — began in the US in 1996 and today there are four main GM crops grown around the world: corn, canola, soybeans and cotton.

In Australia, however, GM cotton has really taken off. Cotton's main pests, bollworm and budworm caterpillars, were thwarted by the introduction of Bt cotton in 1996. This breed of cotton has a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis inserted into the seeds to produce toxins lethal to the caterpillars.

At that time, GM cotton farming was capped at 30 per cent owing to fears that the insects would build up resistance to the crop.

Since then, however, new varieties have been introduced that are said to eliminate the potential problem of insect resistance. These are Bollgard II (which has superseded the initial Ingard variety introduced in 1996) and Bollgard II/Roundup Ready cotton, a herbicide-resistant variety that's reportedly revolutionised weed control.

With the introduction of these new, and ostensibly much improved GM varieties, Australia's Gene Technology Regulator shifted the allowance cap from 30 to 90 per cent. As a result, around 80 per cent of cotton grown in 2006 in Australia was GM cotton.

"The main benefit of GM cotton has been the huge reduction in pesticide use," says Kay. "It has been reduced by 80 per cent. GM crops have changed the way that growers grow cotton - now it's done in a sustainable way."

Bidstrup agrees: "We used to spray [pesticides] anywhere from 9 to 14 times in one season with conventional cotton and we heard of some people spraying 17 to 20 times," he says. "Since we started growing Bollgard we haven't sprayed [for bollworm and budworm caterpillars] at all."

The flipside

But although the majority of the Australian cotton growing community has embraced GM cotton, there are others who have serious concerns about it.

"There has been the bare minimum of studies to determine whether or not genetic-engineering technology is safe," says Scott Kinnear, a director on the board of the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA).

"We are deeply concerned about the assessment process at the human health and environmental level both in Australia and overseas, and we don't feel the remotest bit safe or comfortable today looking at GM cotton in Australia."

There are further fears that cross contamination between GM and non-GM crops could result in 'superweeds' and others argue that Bt cotton is just a short-term fix.

"Any entomologist will tell you that insects are expert at getting around pesticides and they will be expert at getting around DNA-inserted technology in plants too," says Kinnear.

There is evidence in other Bt cotton-growing countries that the fairytale could sour.

In China, for example, new agricultural pests are wreaking havoc on farmers' supposedly pest-resistant GM crops.

According to a report compiled by Cornell University in the US on the long-term impact of Bt cotton in China, plagues of mirids (insects) are infesting the cotton fields of five million Chinese farmers who, until recently, had been successfully growing Bt cotton.

These farmers are now being forced to use other chemical sprays to combat the new pests.

"There are 21 different cotton pests," says Bob Phelps, director of the Gene Ethics Network. "But Bt cotton deals with only two of these pests - bollworm and budworm. So the other 19 will have to be managed in some other way; to us that suggests a lot of spraying."

Cotton Australia, however, doesn't believe there is any reason for concern.

"There is an enormous amount of research demanded by regulators [of GM cotton] before farmers are allowed to grow it," says Kay. "It is not just some willy nilly 'if I develop something I can put it out there' scenario. Exhaustive testing is carried out before it can be released and the public needs to understand that."

"We have been growing GM cotton for nearly 12 years and there's absolutely no downside to it at all," says Bidstrup. "We have not had a hint of a problem."

Natural selection

With such controversies surrounding GM cotton and a general increased environmental awareness worldwide, why aren't Australian farmers experimenting with organic cotton?

Using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment, supporters of organic cotton see it as being the most natural and least harmful way to farm.

Since 2001, the global organic cotton fibre supply has quadrupled and organic cotton sales have increased by about 35 per cent annually worldwide.

Turkey, India, Egypt and the US are some of the biggest producers of organic cotton but in Australia, according to the BFA, the country's largest representative organic body, in 2007, there were only two farmers growing the crop organically.

"Back in the 1990s we were offered three times the price of ordinary white cotton to grow organic," says Bidstrup.

"Myself and a partner had just bought a farm that had not been sprayed for several years so we planted 700 acres of organic cotton... but we got nothing. It was a very bad year for insects and it was a total disaster. We did 17 sprays with organic products trying to save the crop but in the end we mulched the lot. I lost around a quarter of a million dollars out of it."

"I have worked with a number of growers that have tried organic cotton," says Kay. "It costs a lot more to grow, they only got about a third of the yield and couldn't get a return on the lint that justified that. There is not the market out there for organic cotton. If the market was willing to pay more for it then I think growers would try it."

According to Bidstrup, one of the main reasons there is not a competitive organic cotton market is because GM cotton has increased yields in countries such as India by 50 per cent, thereby driving world cotton prices down.

Nick Barclay, one of the founders of the Australian company Organic Cotton Advantage, which makes certified organic cotton T-shirts, doesn't agree.

"Our demand is going through the roof," says Barclay. "We believe that Australia could be regarded as one of the best organic cotton producers in the world. We have got the most certifiable organic land in the world and we're a country of smart farmers."

"I think if we look at what is happening overseas, it is indicative of an [organic] industry that, in the last 10 years, has just kept growing and growing," says Andrew Monk, BFA Standards Committee chairman. "We are behind here in Australia: we're overusing water, we do use lots of pesticides, and we have a lot of environmental challenges."

Thirsty work

While the debates surrounding conventional-versus-GM-versus-organic cotton continue, one constant issue the cotton industry has had to contend with is its water usage.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and cotton is a water-thirsty crop, requiring an average 6.7 million litres to irrigate each hectare.

This begs the question, should Australia be growing cotton in the first place?

"Absolutely, we should be growing it," says Peter Cullen, founding chief executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology and a commissioner on the board of The National Water Commission.

"Cotton is an annual plant. Farmers can make the decision to plant cotton when they know what resources they've got. In the last couple of years there has not been much cotton because of the drought. If we have a lot of water then we can exploit it and grow cotton crops, and the industry is built on this basis."

"There have been misconceptions on the water issue," adds Kay. "Cotton is mid-range in its water usage. If we didn't farm cotton then farmers would grow other crops, for example soybeans, that use the same amount of water."

Cotton Australia says it is attractive to farmers because it has a high financial return.

But others argue that the industry is draining the country in order to make a profit. Furthermore, 97 per cent of the cotton grown in Australia is exported.

A report on water use on Australian farms, published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, figures show that in the year 2004-05 more water was used for irrigating cotton than any of the three previous years - a total of 1,819 billion litres (GL).

By comparison, the total household water usage for all of Australia in the same period was 2,108 GL. Cotton is second only to rice in the amount of water used to irrigate the crops.

In the end it comes down to the bottom line and if organic cotton production has yet to make a significant impact on the Australian cotton market, then other natural fibres have even further to go.

As Adam Kay says: "Farmers will grow whatever crop makes them money." For the time being at least, that appears to be GM cotton.