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Robert Quirk sugarcane farm, Stotts Creek, New South Wales © WWF-Aus / Greg Coggiola

Robert Quirk sugar cane farm, Stotts Creek, New South Wales © WWF-Aus / Greg Coggiola


When does sugar cane farming lose some of its sweetness? When farming techniques harm the Great Barrier Reef.

Sugar cane is the major agricultural crop grown within the Reef's catchments. About 3,000 farms sprawl over 360,000 hectares, some of them dating back more than 100 years. But it’s only been in recent times that we have learnt the impact that sugar production is having on the Reef's water quality. And it's anything but sweet.

Fertilisers are one of the major sources of nutrients entering the Reef. Fine sediments and the pesticides used on coastal floodplains also threaten water quality.

An expert scientific panel has recommended that nitrogen entering Reef waters be reduced by up to 80% and suspended sediment run-off halved by 2025 to meet targets for improved water quality. Thankfully there are solutions at hand and farmers are stepping up to the challenge.

What we're doing

WWF-Australia is working with industry partners and farmers to reduce the impact of farm pollution on the Great Barrier Reef.

Why it matters 

Declining water quality and climate change have had a devastating impact on the health of the Great Barrier Reef. It has lost half its coral cover since 1985 and if that trend continues, what coral is left could be halved again by 2022.

Protecting the Great Barrier Reef from farm pollution depends on the entire Queensland sugar industry adopting best practice. Concentrated in high rainfall and irrigated districts along coastal plains and river valleys within Reef catchments, these farms account for about 95% of Australia's raw sugar production. At 30-35 million tonnes of cane each year, this equates to 4-4.5 million tonnes of processed sugar. But at what cost to our Reef?

We understand that changing farming practices, developed over a century, takes time and commitment. Individual farmers have begun to innovate, but it's going to take much more to achieve the ambitious Reef 2050 targets. That's why WWF has sought a significant increase in government funding to expand and fast-track the process. By reducing farm run-off we can help build the Reef's resilience to withstand other pressures, such as climate change.

Mark Bugeja, holding sugar cane, Mackay, North Queensland, July 2014 © WWF-Aus / Kerry Trapnell


  • Fertiliser run-off
  • Sediment and pesticides

  • Fertiliser run-off
    Nitrogen from farm fertiliser run-off poses a major pollution risk to the Great Barrier Reef. Nitrogen in the fertilisers not taken up by sugar crops can run off into waterways and be carried out to the Reef. Excess nitrogen leads to algal blooms, feeding juvenile crown of thorns starfish, which multiply to plague proportions. These starfish are responsible for over 40% of coral loss on the Reef, which has halved in the past three decades. Increased nutrients can also make corals more sensitive to temperature stress.

    Sediment and pesticides
    Sediment can have far-reaching effects on the Reef. It reduces the light available to seagrass ecosystems and inshore coral reefs, hampering coral settlement, growth and reproduction. Sediment can also lead to increased turbidity. Pesticides and herbicides, which have been detected in inshore areas of the World Heritage Area, pose a further risk to marine plants and animals.

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