Associate Professor Geoff Cockfield, Dr Neil White and Dr Shahbaz Mushtaq inspect a cotton crop in the Burdekin Irrigation Area.
Associate Professor Geoff Cockfield, Dr Neil White and Dr Shahbaz Mushtaq inspect a cotton crop in the Burdekin Irrigation Area.

Cotton, rice on the decline

UNIVERSITY of Southern Queensland Associate Professor Geoff Cockfield says Australian cotton and rice production will decline in national economic importance unless these crops can be profitably grown in northern Australia.

Associate Professor Cockfield, Dr Shahbaz Mushtaq from the Australian Centre for Sustainable Catchments, and Dr Neil White, from the Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, are examining the profitability and regional economic impacts of growing cotton and rice in the Burdekin region.

"Drier winters, demand for water for mining and domestic consumption, and the national government purchasing of water for the environment mean that rice production in southern NSW and cotton production in northern NSW and southern Queensland, will more than likely not return to the peak production of the 1990s," Mr Cockfield said.

"This will reduce regional economic output in some areas and national GDP.

"It may be possible to offset this by expanding production in areas such as the Ord River in Western Australia and the Burdekin region of Queensland."

Mr Cockfield said some early results from the research, funded by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry under the Australia's Farming Future program, suggest that rice and cotton production in the Burdekin area could be profitable, although perhaps less so than in the longer established areas along the Murray-Darling river systems.

"There would also be a boost to the regional economy in the Burdekin with additional employment and spending, although there might be a small net reduction in national output if yields in the Burdekin are less than in the older irrigation areas," he said.

"The barriers to an expansion of northern agriculture include the strong preference for existing land uses, especially sugar, the lack of processing infrastructure and farmers' wariness when it comes to trying new crops.

"It's not an easy choice because there have been some spectacular financial and agronomic failures of agricultural schemes in the north, and there are now additional concerns about the environmental consequences of increasing production in an area subject to highly variable weather conditions.

"We need further in-depth socio-economic research to really consider the prospects for these crops in the north."