Sydney protesters anti-corruption, not anti-cotton – but told to bone up on industry

Sydney protesters anti-corruption, not anti-cotton – but told to bone up on industry


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John Pettigrew of the Environmental Farmers Network at Parliament House in Sydney today.

John Pettigrew of the Environmental Farmers Network at Parliament House in Sydney today.

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Under-fire industry says calls to cut water and pesticide use 'ignorant' of farming advances.

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UPDATED: PROTESTING green groups maintain they’re anti-corruption – not anti-cotton – but have been told to ‘bone up on the facts’ after suggesting the embattled irrigation industry further cut water and pesticide use. 

Last week’s ‘Save Our Rivers - Take Water from the Nationals’ protest in Sydney, driven by the Nature Conservation Council, called for water portfolios to be taken from the state and federal Nats – and handed to Liberal Party ministers. 

This is amid claims big North West cotton irrigators have enjoyed favourable treatment from state government, while also allegedly breaching their entitlements at the expense of downstream users.

The council also supports a federal judicial review of the mismanagement of water in the Murray-Darling system, and wants all allegations of corrupt conduct in the administration of water in NSW referred to ICAC. 

When asked about the future of the cotton industry, council chief executive, Kate Smolski, said she believed it could be sustainable, but it needed to change to subsurface drip irrigation or be punished by the market. 

“Flood irrigation was used by the ancient Egyptians - it’s old technology,” she said. 

“The cotton industry has to embrace the best irrigation practices available or it will lose its social licence.”

The Council maintains it is not anti-cotton, and said last week that the cotton industry has a future in Australia if it can further reduce water use through sub-surface drip irrigation, and also cut its pesticide use. 

But National Irrigators chief executive, Steve Whan, said the comments represented “an out of date view” of the industry, and were born from lingering negativity from the Four Corners report on July 24. 

“I would suggest critics bone up on how much food the industry puts on the table,” Mr Whan said. 

Protesters who lined the footpath in front of parliament house today demanded a full judicial review into alleged water mismanagement in NSW, raised in the July 24 Four Corners report.

They held placards to “Save our Murray Darling”, with the welfare of waterbirds a key concern.

Anti-mining and anti-land clearing messages were prominent.  

The crowd called for government to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, and on time, as it was “something taxpayer dollars have gone into”. 

Among the speakers were Bunbartha fruit and lucerne grower John Pettigrew - a member of the Environmental Farmers Network Australia – as well as Dareton Vigneron Howard Jones- a member of the Murray Darling Wetlands Working Group – and Bev Smiles, a Central West landholder and spokesperson for the Inland Rivers Network.

“The Darling River below Menindee was dry for about nine months for the first time in history in the last drought because of the water taken out above Bourke,” Mr Jones said.

“The National Party does not look after all the people who rely on the river, the people at Louth, Wilcannia, Menindee, the Aboriginal community, tourist operators and graziers. They look after their mates. The Rum Rebellion is alive and well in NSW.”

There was also an impromptu appearance by a Menindee Lakes Action Group member who demanded a business case for the Broken Hill Pipeline. 

Protesters in Sydney today. Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham is on the right.

Protesters in Sydney today. Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham is on the right.

Mr Whan said the industry could hold up the effort it had made over the past 20 years to improve water and pesticide efficiency. 

“The Australian cotton industry is one of the most efficient industries of its type in the world,” he said. 

“For the vast majority of farmers, over the past 20 years they’ve embraced modern equipment, monitoring, have made great steps with salinity problems. 

“We’re not seeing the amount of waste or run-off that we once saw.”

“To be honest it is what I’d call out of date thinking.” 

Cotton Australia’s 2014 sustainability report showed a 40pc increase in water productivity over 10 years, and an 89pc reduction in pesticide use. 

Comparing five-year averages for the periods 2008-13 and 1998-03, the amount of insecticide used reduced from 5.12 kilogams to 0.55kg active ingredient per hectare.

The report also said 96pc of irrigators had improved their furrow irrigation system or changed to an alternate irrigation system.

Mr Whan also said drip irrigation – while a great tool – was not suited to all crops.  

Ms Smolski said it was “in the interests of cotton farmers and all the Basin communities to improve water-use efficiency because it will make the cotton industry more ecologically and economically sustainable.”

The Nature Conservation Council’s 2012 water policy calls for landholder and extraction rights to be prioritised below environment outcomes.

The post-Four Corners furor has united a number of farmers and environmentalists in outrage over allegations of corruption and mismanagement of NSW water in the Murray Darling Basin. 

Of particular focus are a handful of big cotton irrigators in the North West, and alleged water entitlement breaches and sway over government policy. 

In all, there are about 1200 cotton farms in NSW and Queensland employing 10,000 workers. 

Cotton Australia estimates the industry underpins the viability of more than 152 rural communities.

The under-fire Niall Blair said last week: “I just want to make sure it is known there are many, many good people throughout regional NSW that are operating within water sharing plans and the rules and are contributing enormously to our communities and our economy.”

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