Cotton has been cultivated in different parts of the world for thousands of years. The first recorded evidence dates back as early as 5500 BC in an ancient town in the Indus River Valley of modern-day Pakistan.
While native varieties of cotton have grown here in Australia for thousands of years, the first cotton seed for cultivation arrived during European settlement.
However, it didn’t really get established as a crop until the 1850s and even then, it had a minimal footprint.
And it wasn’t until the 1960s that the 'modern era' of Australian cotton really took off with better crop management practices.
A home for cotton research is established
The Australian Cotton Research Institute was established at Myall Vale in regional New South Wales and in 1972 we consolidated our cotton research activities there.
This brought together scientists from the Ord River in Western Australia and Griffith in NSW to share the important new research site with the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Our early work at the Institute focussed on specific targets of short-season and dryland production systems, premium fibre, and Fusarium wilt resistance.
As the industry expanded, more varieties were developed to meet the combined desired fibre quality and increased yield and disease resistance.
We have released more than 100 cotton varieties since the breeding program's inception in 1972.
Cotton research – a work in progress
Today, research at Myall Vale focuses on two primary areas – integrated crop management and cotton breeding.
Our work in integrated crop management looks at how best to enhance crops and production practices to maximise the potential of cotton varieties.
Our breeding program invests in developing new varieties with increased yield and fibre quality characteristics, disease and pest resistance. We also investigate abiotic stress tolerance which is the plant's ability to cope with the negative impact of factors such as temperature and drought.
Since 2010, 100 per cent of the cotton varieties grown in Australia have been developed by CSIRO. The Australian industry also has the highest-yielding varieties worldwide.
A breakthrough for the Australian cotton industry was the release of genetically-modified insect pest-resistant varieties in 1996, which have resulted in reduced insecticide use across the industry.
This research has been taken further with herbicide-tolerance traits frequently combined with insect resistance to assist crop management and increase water-use efficiency.
The next advancement will be the release of new herbicide-tolerant varieties containing the XtendFlex® trait platform. These new varieties will be released once all relevant regulatory approvals are in place.
Partnering for success
Partnerships are one of the key drivers behind the success of our cotton industry research.
Th Australian Cotton Research Institute has strong support from the cotton industry through the Cotton Research and Development Corporation and Cotton Seed Distributors Limited.
CSIRO and Cotton Seed Distributors created a joint venture, Cotton Breeding Australia, a targeted fund to facilitate research and development of future cotton varieties for Australian growers.
Current research projects include breeding for novel traits, further resistance to pests and diseases, enhancement of tools to complement cotton breeding activities, and developing a genomic selection pipeline.
The partnership with Cotton Seed Distributors is an impactful example of how we collaborate with an industry group to benefit growers and regional communities.
A bright future
The cotton industry is one of Australia's most significant contributors to the agricultural sector, with exports worth around $2 billion each year.
It is also a major employer from growers to processors to scientists and manufacturers.
In February 2023, our ongoing commitment to the cotton industry was reflected through the opening of a $25 million upgrade to the Myall Vale site. The upgrades include a new cotton processing facility, a cotton management research laboratory, and a plant and soil facility.
These new facilities will boost ongoing research into crop management practices, insect resistance, and new variety development, all under the one roof.
For example, once the cotton has been harvested, samples are ginned, delinted, fibre quality tested, and repackaged for planting all in the same building.
The new facilities underpin the bright future ahead for the Australian cotton industry and its growth both domestically and internationally.