Most people don't even realise we grow cotton in Australia. Well, we do. But is it any good?
Images by Courtney Holm 


We Do Grow Here
Courtney Holm


Cotton has been grown in Australia since the 1850s. Back then, it was nothing to write home about from a quality or quantity perspective and looked nothing like the industry does now. Genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds were introduced to commercial growers in Australia in 1996 after a 6 year long trial period. (Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia)


Cotton Fields Narribri

Since then, the crop has been tweaked (literally GM traits are added or removed as required) by CSIRO scientists and myBMP specialists on the ground. What we have now, in 2017, is an incredibly high quality, high yield crop that has climbed its way up the export leader board. Australia is now the fourth largest exporter of cotton in the world.

The Australian cotton industry has truly won me over when it comes to the research and scientific methods used to grow cotton as sustainably as possible on our great dry land. I spoke to Cotton Australia at length about organic cotton, and this was allegedly trialled in Australia with dismal results. Dismal being a much lower (one third lower) yield than conventional cotton and still super thirsty (we don't get a lot of rain here- 70% of the world's organic cotton farms rely on rainwater alone).

Hand Picking Cotton

Get this. The Australian cotton crops are producing, on average, double the yield of the rest of the world, per hectare, with the same average amount of water. This means Australian cotton technically uses half as much water as that of other cotton countries. So that's a peculiar tick for the water issue. But how did they get that yield increase? GM seeds.

What about pesticides? Considering that cotton is devouring a staggering 25% of the world's pesticides and 11% of the world's insecticides annually, yet only accounts for around 3% of the planet's agricultural land, there is an identifiable problem. In the last decade, Australia has reduced its use of pesticides by 90%, with many crops not being sprayed at all. How is that possible? Australian cotton farmers introduce other bugs to the crops, like ladybugs and spiders, to help eat the pests au naturel. But really, the main reason for such a dramatic reduction is due to the introduction and refinement of cotton with transgenic traits (proteins lethal to the pests) AKA GM seeds. In other words, this is a crop with inbuilt pesticides. (Cotton Australia.)

Courtney Picking Cotton

Personally, I have never been much of a fan of GMO. The introduction of the expensive Monsanto owned seeds (Bt cotton) in countries that do not have the support, infrastructure and ongoing commitment to research and development is, quite frankly, dangerous. Pests build resistance over time to pesticides, too, so the GM crop does not always result in a low-to-no pesticide usage. There is controversy around who is to blame for the horrendous number of Indian cotton farmer suicides since Bt cotton was introduced in India. The country did little research prior to launching Bt cotton nation-wide, while in Australia we did 6 years of research before rolling it out commercially.

My thoughts on cotton, monopolising on important and scarce agricultural land, were also appeased. In Australia, cotton is only grown on the land for 6 months of the year. The other 6 months are used to grow replenishing crops, such as chickpeas, wheat or alfalfa. Incredibly, like with the crop rotation of organic cotton, these deep root crops bring healing to the soil as well as opportunity for the land to be deployed to something as useful as food. 

Picked and Ready for Ginning

Cotton is the bread winner, though, and a farmer who grows cotton will make a heck of a lot more money than one who only grows grains or legumes. The Australian government does not give cotton farmer subsidies, which is controversial in developed nations, such as the USA, where cotton farmers are given government subsidies and therefore hold an unfair advantage over developing nations who also export cotton. (World Trade Organisation) Australia is, therefore, competing on more of a level playing field in terms of international trade. So economically it makes great sense for our farmers, especially as they gain more global recognition for having superior crop quality. 

This gives me cause to relax (a little) when it comes to GM cotton in Australia, a place where the continual research into sustainability and making the most of the crop, is taken to great lengths. But I'm not rushing into using Australian cotton. It still needs to be sent offshore to be spun, as we have no commercial spinners left in Australia. All things considered, I still think the better option is GOTS certified organic cotton. Obviously when compared to other, unknown, conventional cotton (which may well be grown by child labour exploiters in Uzbekistan) Australian cotton, even if spun offshore, is the stronger choice.

Pre-Ginned Aussie Cotton

So, with the standards of A.BCH in mind, I'd say that if it were possible to keep the entire process onshore, from growing to ginning, spinning and milling, Australian Cotton would make a much stronger case for its sustainability and we would absolutely consider introducing it into our products.

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