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GM cotton hope for Ord

Nathan DyerCountryman

Farmers in the Ord River scheme are embracing genetically modified (GM) technology in an attempt to overcome pest problems that have plagued the northern agricultural scheme.

About 800 hectares of GM cotton will be planted in the Ord this year — the first commercial cotton crop grown in WA in 10 years.

Grower David Menzel said the technology was crucial to the success of the crop in the State’s north.

“It’s the only way we can grow cotton here,” he said.

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Mr Menzel said many Kununurra farmers had experience from commercial trials a decade ago and GM varieties would overcome past pest problems.

Pests, such as heliothis moths, wiped out the Ord cotton industry in the 1970s.

The State Government lifted a ban on growing GM cotton in the Ord River Irrigation Area in 2008.

Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) research officer Penny Goldsmith said GM cotton trials at the department’s Kununurra research farm had produced average yields of 8.5 bales/ha. This was comparable with the industry standard.

Kununurra grower Frtiz Bolten said surging cotton prices meant the crop was once again a viable option for the Ord.

Cotton was this week trading at $A817 a bale, according to Commonwealth Bank of Australia reports.

Mr Bolten said cotton trial results gathered by DAFWA during the past decade would be crucial for local growers planting the crop.

The return of cotton to the Ord scheme follows last year’s reintroduction of rice to the region.

More than 600ha of rice is expected to be planted this year.

Mr Menzel said the emergence of cotton and rice was a positive sign for the region, with the government’s $220m Ord expansion project set to increase the irrigation scheme from 14,000ha to 22,000ha by 2012.

“I think we’ve got plenty of options, but it’s a matter of what is economic and what we can get up to scale,” he said.

“The chia industry is good, along with cotton and rice.

“You never know about sugar, but you need the area.”

Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay said the region’s proximity to markets would be an advantage for a Kununurra cotton industry, if the crop was processed locally.

“The Ord has a natural advantage being closer to Asian markets,” he said.

“They might be able to get the crop out of the Ord and into Asia before the northern hemisphere crop becomes available.”

Kununurra does not currently have a gin with capacity to process a commercial cotton crop. Ord cotton harvested this season will be trucked to Dalby in Queensland for processing.

The Ord River District Co-operative declined to comment on cotton planting in the region.

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