By Margaret Cook

Why do we grow cotton in Australia? The country’s vast cotton holdings are the subject of public ire for their profligate water usage, embroiled in national arguments over the devastation of the Murray Darling Basin, water theft and public service/government corruption. But when cotton was first mooted as suitable for Australia’s climate, it was bestowed with the characteristic of water frugality.

In the 1920s, Australian proponents praised the cotton plant as hardy and drought resistant, a reputation derived from its tap root which naturally grows up to 3.5 metres, drawing water from deep within the soil. Cotton Cultivation in Queensland claimed in 1916 that cotton’s Upland varieties could “withstand long spells of dry weather”; this, despite a 1911 report trying to dispel the common belief of the plant’s drought resistant capabilities.[1] Governments and beguiled settlers counted on regular rain in Queensland’s semi-tropics to reliably produce cotton. Reality proved otherwise.

Although cotton is a perennial plant, Australia rejected ratoon cotton (grown from old root stock) as a harbinger of pests and diseases, and because the superior quality of the annual crop attracted higher prices on the Liverpool cotton market. Given four months to produce fruit (a cotton boll), the cotton bush had limited opportunity to develop its tap root beyond 1.8 metres, left vulnerable to the capricious Central Queensland climate in the Dawson and Callide Valley, Australia’s primary cotton belt in the early 20th century. As the promise of reliable rainfall fell short, farmers soon found cotton’s drought tolerance a myth. Drought between 1931 and 1934 crippled the crop – successive seasons produced a bare harvest.

While advocates claimed hardiness, cotton’s true importance was policy driven, a means to fulfil state imperatives of nation and state building and dreams of establishing a new white yeoman farming society.

Cotton’s nation building role

Undeterred by earlier failed closer settlements throughout Australia, Queensland embraced the ideal of establishing small family farms in central Queensland, breaking the pastoralist’s land monopoly, taming unproductive wasteland and populating the state with white settlers to boost the State’s economy and ensuring racial security.

Australian Cotton Growing Association Ltd. Ginnery at Rockhampton.
(State Library of Queensland)

Cotton provided the ideal crop to transform the land, requiring limited capital outlay and manual labour. A cash crop, cotton provided a return in eight months and could be grown on a mixed agricultural farm with pigs, maize and vegetables, until sufficient funds were raised to establish dairy. Famers cleared the land, ringbarked and felled trees by axe, permanently altering the environment. After a burn, they planted the seed among the sash with a walking stick planter or hoe. Chipping or thinning required a wiggle tail (cultivator) or hand, the method used for cotton picking. Production relied on a ready supply of family or itinerant workers. Average yields were 227 kgs per acre, up to 816 kgs in good seasons[2], but in dry years these figures proved elusive.

When variable climate prohibited cotton from achieving its promised bonanza to settlers, the state deployed scientists to experiment with drought-resistant varieties.  Miller and Lonestar seed were imported to Queensland from America, breeds considered the most tolerant. Breeding programmes by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock aimed to genetically modify the seed to suit climatic conditions, improve quality and reduce disease.[3]  Further experimentation found New Mexican Arcala thrived under irrigated conditions. Not surprisingly cotton preferred a constant and reliable drink.

The 1960s rapid expansion of industrial-scale cotton production in Queensland and New South Wales was supported by dams, irrigation and government policies of generous riverine water allocations. Although research and development in recent decades has improved water efficiency by 40 percent,[4] cotton is a voracious consumer of water, requiring about 7.8 million litres per hectare to grow; amongst agricultural products it is only less thirsty than rice.[5]

Cotton is still grown on 1200 family farms and some dryland cropping occurs in wet years; the last vestiges of the yeoman ideal prevail. But the majority is grown on vast holdings of irrigated pastures up to 90,000 hectares, replicating the pastoralists’ stranglehold on land and water that cotton was meant to destroy.

In 2019 the CEO of Cotton Australia, Adam Kay, asserted “cotton is a desert plant that is water-efficient and suits Australia’s climate . . . it gives growers the best return per megalitre”. Despite 90 years of farmers, scientists and governments disproving cotton’s hardiness, the rhetoric of climatic suitability survives. In reality, the $1.78 billion export dollars cotton generated in 2016-17 were contingent on the availability of cheap, subsidised water distributed through a complex government system of water allocations and trading designed to boost the nation’s economy.

Australia produces nine percent of the world’s cotton, the third highest global exporter of cotton behind USA and India. Proponents of cotton and globalisation point to Australia’s high yield, almost three times the world average, implying good value per megalitre. But along with the 90 percent of Australia’s cotton that is exported goes water from the world’s driest inhabited continent at a detrimental environmental cost. Government water allocation policies must be reviewed, assigning a true economic value to the environmental degradation and the diminishing commodity of water.

[1] A. J. Boyd, Cotton Cultivation in Queensland: with notes of the industry in other countries. (Brisbane: Anthony James Cumming, Government Printer, 1911), 2.

[2] Daily Standard, 26 March 1934, 5.

[3] Queensland Cotton Board, Cotton Growing in Australia: Increased production is urgently needed for Australia’s war effort and defence. Brisbane: Queensland Cotton Board, 1941?, 14.

[4] Ruth Redfern, “The Australian Cotton Industry” in Australian Government, Australian Cotton Production Manual 2018, 4.

[5] Ali Chaffey, Graham Harris, Jim Purcell and Louise Gall, “Irrigated or semi-irrigated cotton” in Australian Government, Australian Cotton Production Manual 2018, 22.


Dr Margaret Cook is an academic historian and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and La Trobe University. Her research interests include the history of water policy in Australia, especially the relationship between water and agriculture and the management of floods. The  latter is addressed in her forthcoming book, A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods.


This research was financially supported by the Australian Historical Association and Copyright Agency through their AHA–Copyright Agency Early Career Mentorship bursary and academically boosted by the generous mentoring of Professor Katie Holmes.