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
A cotton field in Narrabri, NSW.


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, at the time of writing 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.

After much research, and a trip to an Australian cotton farm, myBMP facilities and a local gin, I must say on a whole, the Australian cotton industry has 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 just as needy for water as any other cotton, keeping in mind that we don't get a lot of green water in Australia (that is rain water). Many organic farms around the globe rely solely on rainwater, and this just isn't the ideal place for getting rain. So the better approach for Australian cotton farmers was to use the water allocations more wisely with a GMO seed and focus on increasing yields through scientific learning and support.

Hand Picking Cotton
The humble cotton plant - Aussie style.

And that is exactly what the Australian Cotton industry has achieved. Get this. The Australian cotton crops are producing, on average, 2.5 times the yield of the rest of the world, per hectare, with the same average amount of water. This means Australian cotton technically uses less than half as much water as that of other cotton countries. It's now relatively well known as the most water efficient cotton in the world. So that's a peculiar tick for the water issue.

What about pesticides? Well, 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 do some clever pest management, introducing 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
Our founder, Courtney Holm, plowing cotton in Narrabri, NSW.

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, in my opinion, dangerous. Pests build resistance over time to pesticides too, so the GM crop does not always result in a low-to-no pesticide usage. Some countries, like India who has a long history of small-holder cotton farming, have struggled with adoption of the seed and it remains controversial amongst some activists. However, seemingly, when done correctly with years of prior planning and research before roll-out, it may pay off in the long run. I think this is demonstrated well and truly in the Australian approach. 

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 (the summer 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 plows create these neat bundles, ready for transport to the Gin.

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 have traditionally been 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. Economically it makes great sense for our farmers, especially as they gain more global recognition for having superior crop quality.

The other thing is farmers with water licenses have the choice to grow whatever they want on their land. This means that farmers are typically going to choose the most financially rewarding crop. Regardless, the water used to grow the crop will not increase or decrease as this is simply not determined or controlled by farmers, but instead by state governments once per year after environmental and essential human needs are first met. There have been some years where no water has been allocated and in some instances, cotton has not been planted at all.

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. Actually my biggest beef is that we have a broken supply chain. Sure we can grow and gin the cotton here. We can even knit it and dye it here. But the step between - spinning, where the fibres are combed and twisted together to make yarns ready for fabric making, is missing. Unfortunately, Australian cotton, no matter how wonderful, will need to be sent offshore to be spun, as there are no commercial spinners left operating in Australia.

All things considered, our favoured option at the time of writing is to use GOTS certified organic cotton from India, where it is also spun before being imported into Victoria for knitting and dyeing. Or any other shorter supply chain where the cotton isn't travelling out of Australia and then back in, however individual carbon footprints will need to be measured based on the fit-for-purpose material required.

Still, there are some Australian cottons we are excited to work with right now. One example is Australian Super Cotton, grown in St George, QLD that was spun at Australia's last remaining spinning mill in bulk, before it closed its doors. This material is sourced and commissioned by QLD based Full Circle Fibres, a wonderfully like-minded supplier of ours and collaborator in the circular economy space. Check out all our Australian Super Cotton products here.

Questions? Controversies? Let us know. We also wrote an entire Fibre 101 on Cotton - which you might find interesting. Or keep learning via the Community Newsletter.

Shop our first fully Australian supply chain cotton t-shirt here.