Not all threats to our glorious Great Barrier Reef are immediately apparent. Outdated land management, and especially run-off from sugar cane farms in Reef catchments, is one that's having a profound impact through a dangerous string of events.
Nitrogen from farm fertiliser enters waterways and eventually the sea, leading to algal blooms. This is fast food for juvenile crown of thorns starfish, and their populations grow rapidly. Sadly, so does their appetite for coral. To date, they have devoured over 40% of the Reef's coral cover.
Recognising the threat, the Australian and Queensland governments have set a target of reducing nitrogen pollution by up to 80% in key catchments under the Reef 2050 Plan. To reach those targets, current farm practices will need to change, and visionary sugar cane farmers are driving the transformation.
Project Catalyst is a partnership between WWF, natural resource management groups, Reef Catchments, NQ Dry Tropics and Terrain, the Coca-Cola Foundation, Australian Government and sugar cane farmers. It's supporting farmers to identify and trial cutting-edge practices that can reduce their environmental footprint while also enhancing crop production and boosting farm viability. And, together, we’re demonstrating that more efficient farming practices and improved water quality are the same sides of the coin; they are complementary, not conflicting outcomes.
From 19 farmers in 2009, the project has grown to include 80 growers farming more than 15,000 hectares. They are evaluating practices as diverse and as variable as skip row planting, and more efficient application of fertilisers, just to name a couple. A number of innovations, like a more targeted way of applying mill mud (a nutrient-rich by-product of the sugar cane milling process), have already been widely taken up. The long-term goal is to build on such impressive results throughout Queensland and beyond.
Project Catalyst was made possible by the Coca-Cola Foundation who in August 2016 announced a further $500,000 grant to Project Catalyst. This will bring their total investment into the project to over $5 million since 2009.
Project Catalyst is focused on driving change from the ground up, allowing growers to test and validate ideas on and from the farm.
CEO Reef Catchments
Project Catalyst is a model for working together that we hope to replicate in other places and with other commodities. What we’re learning here with Project Catalyst can have an impact not only in Australia, but around the world.
Business Unit President, Coca-Cola South Pacific
We're not about to do anything to jeopardise this piece of dirt, it's our bread and butter. We've been farming the same block for 50 years and the proof is in the pudding, the environment definitely matters to me ... I do not believe there is any grower who would deliberately set out to harm the environment, but the first stage of change is understanding, and that is what this program helps promote.
Project Catalyst grower, Mackay, North Queensland
We’ve been branded as environmental vandals, and that hurts. We live on the doorstep of the Reef, and we don’t want to harm it. When we put nutrients into the ground, we want to get the most out of them. We can’t afford to have chemicals leave our property. At first we were getting nervous looks from people for working with WWF, but now more and more people are interested in what we’re up to. We must be doing something right.
Third-generation sugar cane grower, Mackay, North Queensland
Sugar cane yields can vary significantly across a single block. On one trial site, yields from sample points ranged from 60 to 160 tonnes of cane per hectare, reflecting the different soil potential. With this in mind, this trial site is being used to test ways to match the fertiliser rate to the soil type to maximise yield and minimise unnecessary fertiliser use.
Timeline of action
Project Catalyst commenced in 2009 and has project targets out to 2020:
- 2009 Project commences with 19 growers in the Mackay-Whitsunday region.
- 2011 Project expands into the Burdekin and Wet Tropics.
- 2013 Australian Government Reef Program funding secured (known as Game Changer).
- 2016 Australian Government Reef Trust funding secured.
- 2017-19 Project aims to expand from 80 to 120 farmers participating in field trials, and to engage with 200 additional farmers seeking to adopt best practice.