Paul Burke is the CEO of the NT Farmers Association
Cotton is the world's super fiber. Natural, easy to grow and fully biodegradable. It creates none of the pollutants of synthetic fibers and modern cotton grown in Australia by our farmers using world's-best practice techniques is the greatest cotton on the planet.
Cotton farming in the Territory has become a controversial issue. Some argue it will potentially destroy Top End rivers, while others see it as a panacea for the NT economy.
With such differing perspectives, it is hard to find the truth about modern cotton and its likely impact on our society and precious environment. If we scratch below the surface, we can reveal the facts about the crop.
Territorians are legitimately concerned about the effect of cotton farming on our river systems. We all depend on them for recreation, fishing and to support healthy ecosystems.
Despite what has been said, cotton farming will be responsibly managed and monitored in the Territory and will have minimal impacts on our river systems.
Modern cotton uses water far more efficiently than its predecessors. NT cotton growers don't need to pump huge volumes of water from rivers or aquifers to grow healthy crops. In fact, much of our cotton production will rely solely on wet season rainfall.
Trials during two of the driest years on record demonstrate the success of 'dryland' cropping with positive yields.
Irrigating any crop, including cotton, is expensive and licence approvals can be complicated, therefore it is understandable that over 90 per cent of Territory cotton will be grown in dryland conditions this year.
For farmers, irrigating is not as simple as drilling a bore and turning on the tap. A water licence must first be successfully applied for. The NT Government water approvals process is rigorous and contains numerous scientific checks and balances to protect the environment.
The burden of proof is on farmers to clearly demonstrate, with evidence, that their potential water use will not harm the surrounding ecosystem.
In the Top End, the volume of wet season run off in a median year is massive and will easily support the demands of the environment and all users. If NT Government water planning guidelines are applied, 80 per cent of run-off water in each catchment will be reserved for the environment, indigenous and community use.
The remaining 20 per cent of run-off will potentially be accessible for agricultural purposes via on-farm water storage. However there is no prospect the full amount will be utilized in any catchment in the near future as virtually no on farm storage infrastructure is built or planned.
NT Farmers forecasting indicates that according to the guideline, 520GL of water may be available each year in a median wet season to farmers who pass the government approvals process.
To put this 520GL figure into perspective, the current flow rate in the Douglas Daly River at Mt Nancar is 357GL per day as at time of writing (March 1, 2021).
During a median wet season flow in the Daly, it takes less than a week of run off to exceed the needs of the agricultural sector in a year.
NT Farmers Association strongly supports a thorough government approvals process that evaluates water applications based on evidence and strong environmental science.
NT Farmers and community groups have provided input into regional water plans and the water approvals process.
It is claimed by many that insecticide use by farmers will pollute our waterways and kill fish in Top End rivers. These claims are simply unsubstantiated and misleading.
Insecticide use on modern cotton is minimal, last year insecticide was applied to the largest cotton crop only once in the season. Insecticide spraying is highly controlled to ensure successful pest eradication with minimal impact on beneficial insects and the surrounding environment.
Thanks to improved farm practices and pest resistant cotton, insecticide use has fallen 97 per cent since 1992. The industry is leading the world in the efficient and responsible use of chemicals. Growers adhere to a strong framework to eliminate spray drift and chemical run off.
Growers follow Integrated Pest Management practices that utilise natural defenses against pests and disease.
Critics of modern cotton conveniently forget the enormous benefits the crop will bring to farmers, regional communities and the Territory economy. The majority of cotton farmers are local Territory families who employ locals on their farms.
It is expected that within a decade the NT cotton industry will generate $250 million per year. That is a significant boost to the NT's economy and will significantly benefit Katherine and the Douglas Daly. The industry will create hundreds of direct and indirect jobs, including for Indigenous Territorians.
At a time when the Territory's economy is struggling, it is irresponsible to instantly dismiss a new industry which will guarantee jobs for locals.
NT Farmers will hold an interactive community forum in Katherine as part of its Food Futures Roadshow on April 22 at the Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Centre from 5-7pm.
Industry, environmental groups and the government will be given the opportunity present their evidence and perspectives on the future of cotton farming in the Territory.
Visit NT Farmers Facebook page to register. NT Farmers look forward to sharing information in an open, transparent and respectful manner.