On Christmas Day farmers around Walgett in north-west New South Wales noticed their infant cotton plants had begun to wither. Leaves began to curl and die, killing some plants and stressing others.
Within days, it was clear Walgett was facing a serious incident that had affected nearly 6,000 hectares (60 sq km) of cotton farms reaching as far as Burren Junction, and Rowena.
The culprit is believed to be a giant plume of 2-4,D, a pesticide that is used to kill broadleaf weeds in fallow fields and in some cereal crops. A few days earlier it had rained, which prompts the weeds to sprout and farmers began spraying – though who is responsible for the 2-4,D plume remains a mystery.
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The spray, possibly used at night, is believed to have been trapped in an inversion layer in the atmosphere and then drifted over the highly sensitive cotton plants.
But cotton might just be the agricultural equivalent of the canary in the coalmine. Jo Immig, coordinator at the Australian Toxics Network said the effects of pesticide drift got public attention when cotton was affected and there were financial losses, but off-target spraying was probably affecting other areas, such as bushland, national parks, waterways and population centres, without attracting the same sort of scrutiny.
“It’s not as obvious when it’s in other parts of the environment. The regulators haven’t had nearly enough concern about pesticide drift and its impacts,” she said.
Spraying along Left Bank Road, Byron shire.
What herbicides kill.
Thanks to Tannon for the stunning photos taken here on his mobile phone.