Three months ago Premier Geoff Gallop proudly declared Western Australia would be GM-free, but if he is still premier this time next year he may have to revisit that decision.
The State Government has been holding field trials of genetically modified cotton in the Ord River irrigation area since 1997 and scientists are pleased with the results so far.
“We’re confident that GM cotton could be grown in a sustainable way in that area,” said Geoff Strickland, the Department of Agriculture’s sugar project officer.
He is aiming to have detailed production guidelines published by the middle of 2005 to assist aspiring producers.
Cotton was one of the first crops grown in the Ord but, like some other crops, was abandoned because of chronic problems with insect pests.
New strains of genetically modified cotton – such as Bollgard II®, which is already grown commercially in eastern Australia – are resistant to the major caterpillar pests that attack cotton.
With low market prices putting a cloud over the sugar industry, GM cotton may be the best option for broadacre farming in the Ord.
The political sensitivity surrounding GM products could be the major stumbling block.
Dr Gallop has used the GM issue to promote his ‘green’ credentials, though his ‘prohibition’ leaves open the possibility of exceptions. When asked about GM cotton last week, he was non-committal.
“If the Commonwealth approved a GM cotton variety release WA’s position would depend on our assessment of the possible impact on our international reputation as a reliable provider of ‘clean, green’ quality produce,” Dr Gallop said.
The local farmers are divided on the issue.
Kimberley Primary Industries Association executive officer David McKerrell said the association did not have a policy on GM cotton because its members had a range of opinions.
Local farmers will be surprised to learn that Kimberley MP and Labor Party member Carol Martin is open to the possibility.
She has doggedly opposed GM cotton trials in the west Kimberley near Broome, mainly because of concerns about water supplies, but said the east Kimberley around Kununurra was a different matter.
“In the east Kimberley there are opportunities and that is why we are having the trials,” Ms Martin said.
“If they [the farmers] think its right, I’ll support them.”
The Opposition has no qualms, with agriculture spokesman Paul Omodei heartily backing GM cotton.
“The jury is still out on GM foods but with cotton, where you have had problems with insects, I think it is common sense,” Mr Omodei said.
The production model being developed by Mr Strickland for the Ord is radically different from past practice.
Cotton would be a winter (i.e. dry season) crop, with planting in March or April and harvesting in September or October.
This is a complete reversal of the traditional cotton season.
Mr Strickland said his plans involved a range of measures to emphasise sustainability and maximise biodiversity.
This includes planting ‘trap’ crops to attract insect pests and ‘refuge’ crops to encourage beneficial insects
While GM cotton would need to be sprayed, Mr Strickland expects the intensity of spraying would be hugely down from the levels needed in the 1970s.
The last cotton crop, grown in 1974, was sprayed about 40 times in a vain attempt to control insect pests.
Mr Strickland said production yields in the Ord would be about 7.5 to 8.0 bales a hectare, similar to levels elsewhere in the industry.
The main commercial advantage of Ord cotton is expected to be the very reliable production volumes, based on the assured supply of irrigated water.
In contrast, production volumes in northern NSW and southern Queensland can vary enormously depending on rainfall levels and water supplies.
The prospects for cotton production could be affected by the availability of sufficient land at an affordable price.
There is a total of 30,500 hectares in stage 2.
Mr Strickland believes a monoculture is not sustainable, and that 15,000 to 20,000ha is the maximum that could be planted to cotton.
This might be just enough land, since accepted wisdom in the industry is that a four-stand cotton gin needs throughput of 120,000 to 150,000 bales (equating to 20,000ha) to be commercially attractive.
If the industry does take off, the most likely scenario is that production would start with a two-stand cotton gin, but an investor would need to be confident that sufficient land would be available to support further expansion.