A SECOND attempt at establishing a cotton industry at Ord River, this time based on the GM variety Bollgard is ³technically ready to go.² This is the view of Agriculture Department researcher Geoff Strickland.
Mr Strickland was at the five year review of the Australian Cotton Co-operative Research Centre in NSW in mid-June, partly to assess the performance of a new GM varieties which may be suited to the Kimberley growing conditions.
He said there had been good support for the quality and amount of cotton research being done in WA: "They're giving people confidence that this may be a viable crop for the future."
But the establishment of a new commercial cotton-growing regime in Stage Two of the Ord River scheme would be affected by the outcome of ongoing government negotiations with traditional landowners.
WA Deputy Premier Eric Ripper, who is responsible for native title issues, said the resolution of the Miriuwung Gajerrong and Balangarra people¹s recognition of traditional rights in December 2003, was a milestone for the Kimerley Region.
Mr Ripper said the native title agreement agreement cleared the way for development in Kununarra, and that the government could now step up negotiations on Ord Stage Two.
The Ord River Scheme, in the far north of WA, is centered around Australia¹s biggest irrigation dam, Lake Argyle.
But commercial cotton growing in the irrigated lands there collapsed thirty years ago, as a result of serious pest attack, mainly by three caterpillar species, heliophus, pink bollworm, cluster caterpillar.
The cotton needed to be sprayed up to 40 times per growing, and so the last commercial crop grown at the Ord was in 1974.
Mr Strickland believed that the ability of the Monsanto product Bollgard, which contains two pest-controlling genes, would make an Ord River cotton industry viable again.
Bollgard reduced the need to spray for the three caterpillar pests to nil.
But a few sprays would still be needed in each crop, to combat sucking insects, against which Bollgard had no additional defence.
Mr Strickland said Agriculture Department research in Ord River cotton growing has focused on agronomic issues, mainly around the redesigning of the production cycle.
In a world first, Ord River researchers have shifted the cotton growing season from summer to winter.
Although fibre is generally regarded as the main product of the cotton crop, the yield by weight is actually 60pc seed.
The seed can be used as stock feed, and will find local and export markets when crushed for oil.
The GM characteristics do not appear in the oil, and cotton seed oil from GM crops has already been cleared for human consumption by Australian Food Standards.
There are two GM cotton trials being conducted in the far north, with 20ha at Kununarra, and 60ha at Katherine in the Northern Territory. There are also trials in north Queensland.
These are part of a major study across northern Australia by the Australian Cotton Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), which is based in Narrabri in NSW.
Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department is managing a small trial of GM cotton at Broome, although this is vigorously opposed by a local environmental group.
Mr Strickland said a small 0.5 hectare site near Broome had been planted with Bollgard II (GM) cotton last month and would complement the 20ha trial at Kununurra.
The GM cotton trials were approved by the Commonwealth Office of the Gene Technology Regulator under strict monitoring and compliance conditions including lengthy post-trial monitoring to ensure no GM cotton persists in the environment.
Mr Strickland said the trial would evaluate 20 new Australian-bred GM cotton varieties containing the Bollgard II genes for pest resistance. The trial followed a successful small scale trial at Shamrock Station last year.
³An important aspect of this research is studying cotton growth in a range of climatic conditions. Measurements will include the level of pest control achieved by the GM cotton varieties, yield and fibre quality,² Mr Strickland said.
³Water and nutrient supply will be controlled using drip irrigation and soil moisture will be monitored to ensure no nutrient leaching.²
Mr Strickland said a range of other crops including sweetcorn, peanut, chickpea and pigeon pea would be grown alongside the GM cotton to assess their respective value as Œrefuge crops¹.
³Refuge crops, which are not sprayed, must be grown in association with GM cotton to enhance biodiversity of key insect species,² he said.
³If the cotton trials are successful, they may lead to long term studies addressing sustainability issues such as cover crops to protect soil in the wet season, rotation crops, enhancing biodiversity, developing integrated pest management systems that maximise biological control tactics.²
Mr Strickland said the trials were located on freehold land to respect the position of the West Kimberley Traditional Owners not to have trials on land under Native Title.