The results of a new comprehensive independent assessment of the environmental performance of Australia’s cotton industry have been released revealing significant gains, and areas for improvement.

This latest assessment – undertaken by GHD, a global professional services company focused on sustainability at the request of Cotton Australia, the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC) and cotton’s Sustainability Working Group – included a combination of desktop research, interviews with industry stakeholders, and visits to farms of all sizes.

The assessment found the Australian cotton industry had delivered fully on four of the six recommendations in the 2012 Third Independent Environmental Assessment and has made significant progress on the other two.

The assessment also nominated 16 new recommendations which will be assessed in another ten years. The Australian cotton industry has accepted all 16 new recommendations, with all either currently being actioned or with strategic planning underway to inform the next steps. More than half of the new recommendations are to continue work already underway, while others are initiatives put forward to GHD by the cotton industry during the 18-month assessment timeline, as actions that were planned.

GHD’s on-farm observations rated close to 90% of the environmental criteria observed across all farms as ‘excellent’, ‘very good’ or ‘good’, rising to over 95% for myBMP-registered growers.

GHD also observed the industry has sound processes in place to identify and respond to current and emerging environmental issues, through the implementation of cotton’s industry-wide sustainability framework: PLANET PEOPLE. PADDOCK.

Cotton Australia CEO Adam Kay said the assessment is another indication of the commitment of the cotton industry to continually improve its environmental and sustainability outcomes.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to safeguard our environment and to continually improve as an industry using science-based criteria in an open and transparent way,” Adam said.

CRDC Executive Director Allan Williams noted that the assessment continues a long-standing commitment by the cotton industry to seek an external, independent perspective on performance.

“The cotton industry was the first agricultural industry to commission independent environmental assessments and that has continued every 10 years since 1991, along with an annual sustainability update which communicates progress towards our targeted outcomes and also highlights where we need to improve,” Allan said.

The report noted that water use and management has been an area of considerable industry research, development and extension (RD&E) investment which has resulted in demonstrable on-farm improvement over many years. GHD observed that water use was monitored thoroughly on the farms throughout the cotton growing regions where on-site farm visits were undertaken.

The assessment found the industry had made continual progress in pest management with pesticide use significantly reduced and while herbicide use has increased, overall Environmental Toxic Load has ‘reduced dramatically’ - a result of the industry’s significant investments in a multi-pronged approach to reduce pesticide use and resistance.

Among the recommendations is to increase transparency and consistency of reporting of the number of growers both registered and certified with the myBMP program, along with more details about growers, volume and total area of myBMP cotton, in a way that maintains grower confidentiality.

Mr Kay said that process of updating information online is being planned. “Cotton Australia is planning to work with stakeholders to review and update the myBMP website, its content and functionality. We believe this work will greatly improve the visibility of the program and assist growers to understand the full benefits of certification while enabling a streamlined process for signing on and completing the required units of competence.”

GHD found that storage and handling of agrichemicals and petrochemicals, and waste management are areas where improvement is required across the industry. Cost was found to be the biggest barrier to growers improving their storage and handling, and the absence of municipal services such as drumMUSTER was a major inhibitor to waste management.

On the issue of natural resource management, GHD recommended the industry continues cross-sector work to establish indicators and targets for biodiversity and soil, including continuing industry specific investigations on nitrogen use and links to emissions, while increasing extension efforts to assist grower understanding and awareness of how they can increase their natural capital on farm.

GHD observed that grower sentiment has changed with an increasing focus on carbon and emissions and urged a continuation of cross-sector work to establish indicators and targets for GHG emissions and carbon storage while identifying the need for more information for farmers on energy, emissions and climate change.

Mr Kay said the recommendation highlights the lack of industry and general information about actions that can be taken at farm level, including standardised practices and measuring capabilities.

“There is a role for governments and scientific bodies in helping to fill the knowledge gap. The industry cannot on its own be responsible for climate information however it is pleasing to note that growers are concerned about the issues and want to take action.

“The cotton industry will respond positively and with a unified purpose to both improving on the areas identified and enhancing those areas where we are doing well. The changes won’t come overnight but they will happen, and we have the framework aligning internal and external stakeholders to ensure ongoing progress.”

READ MORE: Fourth Environmental Assessment Report

READ MORE: Recommendations and Responses to the Fourth Environmental Assessment Report


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