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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Natural Pest Control: Crawling Spiders Reduce or Eliminate Pesticide Use in Australian Cotton Farms

As the use of pesticides is reduced or eliminated in Australia cotton farms witness crawling spiders. Farmers that get bitten by spiders say it’s a small price to pay for progress at their cotton farms.

An independent environmental assessment conducted on Australia’s cotton industry reported significant progress reducing chemical use.  Cotton Australia says it is confident the industry can further reduce chemical use and increase water efficiency.

Mostfarmers show a few spider bites after cleaning the picker down at night, but say it is a good sign, as the quality of crops has improved. Prior to 1996 farmers could not find a spider in their paddocks. That was because farmers would spray insecticides multiple times a season to kill heliothis, or cotton bollworm, which is the crop’s major yield-reducing pest.

The pesticide killed other life forms too, but with the invention of insect-resistant, genetically modified cotton – Bt cotton – the plant was able to produce a protein to kill the worm and spraying was significantly reduced. Now the thousands of white bolls at cotton farms are swarming with spiders of many sizes and colours and keeping other damaging insects in check.

Less use of pesticides also brought back tree frogs all over the place isolated places in the residences, which farmers firmly believe is a secondary impact of having more insects around and having less pesticides in the environment.

The industry’s progress in this area and others, including water use, have been revealed in the latest independent review of the sector’s environmental performance. Industry group Cotton Australia said it commissioned audit firm GHD to conduct reviews every 10 years to “look for any holes in our environmental credentials that we can then work on to plug”.

“When I think back to the first one in 1991, there was a list as long as my arm,” Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay said. “As the years have gone on I think we can really be proud of the advancements we’ve made, [but there are] still some areas that we need to tighten up.”

The study found there was widespread good practice with pesticides and noted an 18 per cent decrease in use between 2014 and 2019. Mr Kay said the industry had actually reduced pesticide use by 97 per cent in the past 30 years. But GHD did find a 20 per cent increase in herbicide for weed control, although the overall environmental toxic load had reduced dramatically.

Mr Kay expects herbicide volumes to drop as more growers adopt robots and cameras to spot spray weeds instead of applying blanket sprays.

The cotton industry is one of Australia’s most scrutinised industries mostly due to its high water use on the world’s driest inhabited continent. In 2020-21, the sector used about 1,300 gigalitres to irrigate crops. One of the industry’s biggest success stories, revealed between the last assessment and the latest one, was that cotton growers had halved the water needed to grow one bale of cotton.

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