Go to top of page

Goal 2: Improve cotton farming sustainability and cotton value chain competitiveness

Improving value chain competitiveness and sustainability to derive $0.5 billion in greater value for Australian cotton growers – and helping Australian cotton achieve its ambition to be the highest yielding, finest, cleanest and most responsibly produced cotton in the world – are CRDC’s aims within this goal. To work towards this, CRDC focuses investments in RD&E to create higher value uses for cotton, to ensure the sustainability of cotton farming, and to support measurement and reporting through the value chain.

In 2019–20, CRDC invested in 31 projects within this goal, accounting for 10 per cent of our total RD&E expenditure.

Performance against the Strategic Plan:

2.1 Sustainability of cotton farming

2.1.1 Improved environmental footprint for cotton farms

Increase in sustainability metrics and improved carbon footprint

Percentage of farm native vegetation managed for conservation

The area of native vegetation not usually grazed remained steady at four per cent during 2019-20.

2.1 Sustainability of cotton farming

2.1.1 Improved environmental footprint for cotton farms

Increase in sustainability metrics and improved carbon footprint

Carbon footprint (kg of CO2e per bale)

Nitrogen fertiliser is the most significant contributor to the cotton industry’s carbon footprint, and CRDC maintains an extensive investment for improving nitrogen-use efficiency. Nonetheless, for the five years from 2014-2019, greenhouse emissions per bale increased by 12.5 per cent, mainly due to higher nitrogen use. However, the industry does not yet assess sequestration at the industry scale, and case studies have highlighted that individual farms can be carbon positive when carbon sequestration is taken into account. Accurately measuring sequestration at the industry level will be a focus to ensure that a complete picture of the industry’s footprint can be calculated.

2.2 Create higher value uses for cotton

2.2.1 Increased value for Australian cotton

Increase in the number of new commercialised products

Number of new commercialised products

While no products were commercialised during 2019-20, three commercialisation proof-of-concept activities were supported: the use of gin trash for producing high value chemicals; the use of glycine as an alternative yarn treatment; and the use of cotton by- products to enhance the performance of sound-proofing panels.

2.2 Create higher value uses for cotton

2.2.1 Increased understanding of market requirements and opportunities throughout the value chain

Information is publicly available on market requirements and value chain opportunities

CRDC research identifies opportunities to increase the value of cotton by 25 per cent

The commercialisation activities noted above have the potential to add value to cotton through better use of current waste streams, or allowing the production of higher value cotton fabrics.

2.3 Measurement and reporting throughout the value chain

2.3.1 CRDC collaborates in global leadership for sustainability initiatives

Evidence of involvement in global initiatives

Number of global initiatives participated in

CRDC continues to participate directly in five global initiatives: the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) Expert Panel on the Social, Economic and Environmental Performance of Cotton; the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative; the Sustainable Apparel Coalition; the Better Cotton Initiative ‘Project Delta’; and Cotton2040. CRDC also participates indirectly in the EU’s Product Environmental Footprint processes.

2.3 Measurement and reporting throughout the value chain

2.3.1 The value chain is transparent and understood by participants to improve market opportunities

Economic and sustainability implications of transparency throughout the value chain are published and understood

Reports and sustainability information published

The Australian Cotton Sustainability Report 2019 was published jointly with Cotton Australia in 2019-20, and broad consultation commenced with stakeholders on draft industry targets for nine key sustainability indicators.

Projects have been established to enable reporting against those targets, including the development of appropriate social capital and wellbeing indicators. In addition, projects are continuing to investigate strategies for improving labour conditions throughout the supply chain, and the information and transparency needs of the supply chain, in particular the retail/brand sector. Terms of reference have also been drafted for the conduct of the industry’s fourth Environmental Audit, to commence in 2020-21.

RD&E highlights:

Synthesis of natural resource assets in the cotton-growing region of eastern Australia (FWPA1801)

This project lays a foundation for developing and reporting ecological sustainability, by creating a comprehensive database of the extent and condition of natural assets the industry uses in eastern Australia. The database, which is accessible to growers via the CottonInfo website, helps to define values and drivers of natural landscape management in cotton regions. The database includes information on biodiversity, vegetation areas, wetlands, groundwater-dependent ecosystems, corridors and connectivity. It is used to evaluate and prioritise ‘relative conservation value’ of native vegetation, and areas for restoration. The project is part of the Forest and Wood Products-led Rural R&D for Profit program project, Natural Capital Accounting in the Primary Industries, supported by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. The data from this project will be used in the larger Rural R&D for Profit project to account for natural capital within cotton.

PhD: Sustainable water extractions: Low-flow refugia and critical flow thresholds (UNE1406)

When inland rivers flow, biodiversity thrives. But when there is low or no flow, waterholes (refugia) become refuges for fish, animals and plants, which maintains ecosystems and riverine diversity. In-channel flows help maintain connections between waterholes by facilitating dispersal and mediating water quality. Human activities, such as vehicle and domestic stock access and water pumping, increasingly threaten refugia, especially when flows are low. This project studies the locations, features, and functions of refugia to guide decision making about irrigation, management of rivers, and neighbouring landscapes. The project will make recommendations on appropriate strategies for restoration of in-channel and riverbank areas.

New technologies to improve natural resources (biodiversity) on Australian cotton farms – Cotton Landcare Tech-Innovations 2021 (NLP1901-1903, NLP2001)

This project builds on international best practice to implement and develop cutting-edge technologies, such as drone mapping and aerial seeding, acoustic monitoring and big data, to help Australian cotton better understand, report on and improve on-farm biodiversity. It is funded under the National Landcare Program’s Smart Farming Partnerships initiative. In one sub-project, the research team is deploying innovative acoustic technologies to actively monitor, manage and report on biodiversity for a subset of bird and microbat species. In another sub- project, trial sites are being established to investigate the success of tube stock plantings against direct seeding for river red gums. This research aims to improve the capacity for cost-effective revegetation on cotton farms by trialling new and improved revegetation methods using drone and tractor technology.

Strategies for improving labour conditions within the Australian cotton value chain (QUT1903)

Practices occurring downstream in the cotton value chain represent a reputational risk to the Australian cotton industry and to its valued supply chain partners, including brands and retailers. To understand how the whole Australian cotton value chain functions, this project is starting with the working conditions of key Asian and African garment industries and their relevance to the Australian industry. It looks at the networks, regulatory frameworks, social context, and the parties that are best positioned to influence change. It investigates ways through which our industry could strategically enforce external labour standards. The project will produce an evidence-based toolkit of strategies and resources that can improve compliance with labour standards along the chain. It promotes industry adoption of a pathway to ensuring decent conditions for workers.

Understanding environmental impacts and resource impacts with changing demand for Australian cotton, assessed using a change modelling life cycle assessment approach (CRDC1911)

The penultimate consumers of cotton (retailers and brands) are increasingly interested in understanding and reducing the environmental and social impact of their entire supply chain, including raw material production. The preferred methodology for developing this understanding and determining how to best reduce their impact is through the use of life cycle assessment (LCA). There is the potential that clothing could have labels with an environmental and social impact rating in the same way that electrical appliances have an energy rating. A challenge confronting cotton is that the LCA methodology being used by the supply chain is an attributional LCA (aLCA), designed as a tool to identify priority sustainability hot spots in a supply chain. An aLCA, however, focuses narrowly on the product (e.g. T-shirt) in question, and does not consider the impact of any changes in a system, e.g. as a result of changing the type of raw material used to make that product. This is a significant gap: the consequences of making changes are not being taken into account, and changes informed by only an aLCA methodology may result in perverse outcomes.

For the cotton industry, it is critical therefore that a broader perspective is taken when considering changes in raw material procurement policies, such as provided through using a consequential LCA (cLCA) methodology. A cLCA approach considers the impact at a broader systems level; for example, reducing cotton production would also reduce the production of cottonseed oil, which would need to be replaced by another type of vegetable oil, which may well have a higher environmental impact. A cLCA would take into account this broader impact – the consequences – resulting from a reduction in cotton production. Using a cLCA analysis of changes in cotton production, this project considers impacts from greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, freshwater and stress-weighted water use.

Joint RDC Community Trust Project (RIRDC1903)

In this project, 10 Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) and two rural organisations combine to build, rebuild and maintain community trust in the Australian agriculture sector. The project aims to identify strategies, best practice approaches and interventions that are common across the sector. This information will enable the Australian agriculture sector to build a common language and collective national narrative around the community trust challenge. It will also help to develop the sector’s capability to monitor, anticipate, and respond to shifts in the levels of trust the community has in Australia’s rural industries. The first year of the research has found that trust in rural industries is dependent on three drivers: environmental responsibility, responsiveness to community concerns, and the importance of products produced by rural industries. It found that trust in rural industries is high and that Australians believe farmers play an important role in society, but there are areas of community concern around environmental responsibility and responsiveness.

PhD: Improving precision agriculture and climate adaptation for the Australian cotton industry (ANU1602)

This project focuses on improving precision agriculture and climate adaptation by increasing the efficiency of nitrogen application in cotton. It investigates the physicochemical behaviour of commonly used nitrogen- based fertilisers, with a specific focus on the behaviour of urea in relation to temperature, salinity, soil type and crop rotation. The resulting datasets will assist in improving precision agricultural practices, and be used as a platform to further explore the behaviour of nitrogen in irrigation pipes and classic ridge and furrow field structures, in order to determine its impact on plant nutrient uptake and runoff into adjacent ground and surface water bodies.

Sustainability metrics for the cotton industry (CRDC1944)

Australian cotton growers have been quietly and collaboratively working to improve their sustainability performance for decades. In 1991, cotton became the first Australian agricultural industry to benchmark its environmental performance, and more recently, it has worked to develop sustainability reports and targets. This project oversees the development and implementation of the cotton industry’s Sustainability Strategy, and coordinates the efforts of the Sustainability Working Group (SWG), which comprises representatives from CRDC, Cotton Australia and the wider industry. In 2019-20, the SWG launched the Australian Cotton Sustainability Report 2019, providing data on eight priority social, economic and environmental topics. The SWG continues to progress the development of the industry’s sustainability targets.

Case studies:

Case study: Transforming Australia’s cotton industry

The cover of the Australian Cotton Sustainability Report 2019.
The cotton industry has released its highly anticipated Australian Cotton Sustainability Report 2019, following on from the inaugural report published in 2014.

The report, co-produced by CRDC and Cotton Australia, tells a positive story of increasing efficiency in the use of resources, including water and land. It reveals long-term trends that producing a bale of cotton now takes 48 per cent less water, 34 per cent less land, and 97 per cent less insecticide than it did in 1992.

By comparing performance over five-year periods in the industry’s most important sustainability areas, the report also highlights areas for improvement, including nitrogen- use efficiency and the closely associated increase in greenhouse gas emissions per bale.

“Sustainability for the Australian cotton industry means running profitable and efficient businesses while creating environmental, economic and social value. It also means being accountable to stakeholders for the industry’s actions and impacts,” CRDC General Manager, R&D Investment, Allan Williams said.

“The Australian cotton industry has been actively working to do this for over 30 years.

“Now, the industry is seeking to improve even more as it works towards its vision of being a global leader in sustainable cotton production.”

The report is focused on eight sustainability topics most important to the industry and its stakeholders. These topics were decided through a process involving a technical review, industry input and external stakeholder consultations.

The report is part of the industry’s new PLANET. PEOPLE. PADDOCK. sustainability framework that guides the industry to set ambitious targets, coordinate a whole-of-industry strategy to achieve these targets, and engage effectively with stakeholders on actions and progress.

Allan said the industry will now use report data to set five-year targets for 2024 and 2029, along with plans to achieve those targets.

“We need to set bold targets, ensure our research and adoption program can get us to those targets, and frequently and transparently share progress with our stakeholders,” Allan said.

“We will be consulting with growers and other stakeholders inside and outside the industry on setting the right level of ambition in our sustainability targets.

“The industry can point to long-term trends of significant improvement in areas it has focused on in the past, and we will draw on this experience to transform our performance in other areas in the future.”

For more: read the full article in the Winter 2020 edition of CRDC’s Spotlight magazine, and download the Australian Cotton Sustainability Report 2019.

Case study: CottonInfo launches online biodiversity management guides for Aussie cotton growers

A screenshot of the CottonInfo online biodiversity management guides for cotton growers.
CottonInfo, the cotton industry’s joint extension program, has launched new online biodiversity management guides for Australia’s 36 cotton-growing shires.

For the first time, the innovative resources give cotton growers detailed biodiversity information and outline beneficial practices to support biodiversity on their farms.

Growers can select their local government area (LGA) on CottonInfo’s new clickable map to see a snapshot of the biodiversity in their shire, along with practical tips to improve conditions for the diversity of species in that specific cotton landscape.

The biodiversity data presented in the map was collated through CRDC research projects to help the cotton community to understand and prioritise the conservation value of areas of native vegetation within cotton landscapes (cotton farms plus a 5-km buffer).

The research looked at 315 threatened and iconic plant and animal species in the cotton landscapes of eastern Australia, from the NSW-VIC border to the Fitzroy Basin in QLD, and used that data to develop targeted biodiversity management profiles for each of Australia’s 36 cotton- growing shires.

Building on previous research funded by CRDC, Forest & Wood Products Australia, CSIRO and the Australian Government’s Rural R&D for Profit program, each management profile specifies the biodiversity assets, including vegetation types, wetlands, species, rivers and creek lines, and adjacent public land reserves, and recommends management actions to best suit the habitats of the species represented in each of the shires.

Stacey Vogel, CRDC R&D Manager, said the biodiversity management guides are based on comprehensive research that for the first time brings together valuable data to support ‘boots on the ground’ action to improve conditions for biodiversity in cotton landscapes.

“The cotton landscapes of eastern Australia contain an abundant diversity of native plant and animal species that occur in a mosaic of forest, woodland, wetland, grassland and cropland systems,” she said.

“Growers can use the CottonInfo map to get a snapshot of the biodiversity assets and priority management actions for threatened and iconic species in their LGA, and then use that information to make decisions that support biodiversity on their farms.

“Protecting biodiversity is important for all Australian cotton-growing communities. Biodiversity delivers ecosystem services on which businesses and communities enjoy and are dependent. These new online biodiversity management guides are another useful addition to the cotton grower’s toolbox for improving biodiversity.”

This initiative is an outcome of the Cotton Landcare Tech Innovations 2021 project funded by CRDC in partnership with the Australian Government’s National Landcare Smart Farming Partnership Initiative.

For more: view the biodiversity management guides on the CottonInfo website.