Ably led by Cotton Australia chairman Andrew Watson, the cotton industry is challenging its critics with a new wave of family producers who are water-efficient and use little or no chemicals

Story By Paul Myers

For a crop that has contributed much economic benefit to so many country communities for so long – and is a natural fibre to boot – cotton gets a bad rap.
Ask just about anyone unfamiliar with modern-day cotton production and you’ll hear a degree of denigration more appropriate to an illegal crop like marijuana or opium poppies. At least the charges against cotton are constant and predictable: allegedly, it uses too much water, requires too many pesticides and herbicides, is dangerously genetically modified (GM), and production is supposedly dominated by big companies that are environmentally irresponsible.
If ever this was true, it isn’t now. But these are criticisms the cotton industry’s leaders are tackling while forging a future for its 800 – mostly family – farmers in New South Wales and Queensland, some of whom (see panel on page 34) have been growing cotton since its Australian renaissance in the early 1960s.
Leading the industry as it tackles the most challenging period in its brief Australian (compared with global) history is 41-year-old north-west New South Wales producer Andrew Watson. The chairman of Cotton Australia and principal of a family irrigation-farming business based on “Kilmarnock” near Boggabri, Andrew is the contemporary, pragmatic public face of cotton as it maps its future based on environmentally responsible practices.
For Andrew and his German fiancée Heike Feiler, his brother Peter and up to 10 part-time and full-time farm employees on two Watson family properties that grow 1400 hectares of cotton, it’s also a case of practising what they preach: replacing chemicals with an integrated natural pest-management strategy, maximising water efficiency and maintaining soil productivity.
In stark contrast to the bad old days of the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s when DDT was sprayed from the air throughout the growing season to control insects, the Watsons are among a growing band of cotton growers who no longer apply chemicals. Led by the advent of GM varieties with in-built resistance to the cotton bollworm and other pests, chemical use on cotton farms has fallen by 90 percent in the past decade.
Another reason is the mandatory planting of nursery or refuge crops – such as pigeon peas – on farms where GM varieties are grown. These crops attract moths and other insects susceptible to toxic proteins bred into GM cotton. Inevitably, the susceptible moths mate with any resistant moths that emerge in cotton crops and, because toxin susceptibility is an inherent trait, spread of the pests is prevented.

This story excerpt is from Issue #76

Outback Magazine: April/May 2011