Report reveals $1.3b cost of misguided Reef policies

A new analysis reveals the State Government risks an economic hit to Queensland of $1.3 billion over ten years with its misguided push to cut nitrogen applications on sugarcane crops by up to 30% below industry best practice levels.

“We are doing all we can to reduce the risk to Great Barrier Reef water quality from runoff from our farms, including adopting a scientifically-based industry program, SIX EASY STEPS (6ES), to analyse soil and crop needs and determine optimal fertiliser rates for productivity,” CANEGROWERS Chairman and Mackay cane grower Paul Schembri said.

“We are alarmed by the zealous campaign within government agencies and programs to drive nitrogen use below these guidelines without recognising the huge economic risk to growers and the regional economies that rely on them.

“This is happening without any direct evidence that dissolved nitrogen from farms is having any effect on corals in inshore areas which see catchment flows.”

CANEGROWERS has used a large dataset derived from field trials of crop fertiliser responses to assess what would happen at different rates of nitrogen application. The economic impact was then analysed.

“The impact of a 30% reduction on the 6ES nitrogen rate was significant and dire for cane farms,” Mr Schembri said.

“The ramped-up reef regulations implemented last year are based on an intent to push growers to this level.

“These regulations are based on the lie that such a cut would not hurt the industry – our analysis shows this is clearly false.

“These 2019 reef regulations must be repealed.”

The CANEGROWERS analysis showed a 30% reduction in nitrogen use would lead to:

  • A drop in crop production of 5 – 7.5 tonnes of sugarcane per hectare per year
  • An annual loss of 2.3 million tonnes of sugarcane across the Queensland industry
  • A loss of $110 million in earnings per year for cane growers and sugar millers
  • Processing capacity equivalent to two sugar mills becoming redundant

The results of the study are published in the report Nitrogen Management in the Queensland Sugarcane Industry – The economic risks of policies that prescribe nitrogen rates below industry guidelines which assessed the economic impact across the Queensland economy.

“It is time to put the brakes on this regulatory juggernaut and the false assumptions on which it is based,” Mr Schembri said.

“This same misguided approach is behind reef targets, programs and report cards that are rolled out by both the Queensland and Federal governments. No wonder growers get frustrated!

“This anti-industry dogma is posing a real risk to the livelihoods of the thousands of people who work in the sugarcane industry and to the Queensland state economy.

“The industry cannot survive if this unfounded push to reduce nitrogen use below optimal levels continues.

“Even driving catchment water quality back to pre-development levels, with everyone going broke in the process, would have a limited impact on the Great Barrier Reef as a whole because inshore areas account for 5% or less of the coral reef area.”

The sugarcane industry will continue to do its bit for water quality through testing and adopting cost-effective ways of improving the efficiency of fertiliser use.

“As sugarcane growers we have been cooperating with and involved in Reef water quality efforts for 20 years,” Mr Schembri said.

“CANEGROWERS is now leading on-farm trials of new fertiliser formulations that could further reduce losses and through our Smartcane BMP (best management practice) program, growers are showing they have improved their methods and timing of fertiliser application.

“The importance of nitrogen in water for coral on the Reef has been greatly exaggerated by governments.

“Scientists tell us that the main stressors on the Reef are climate change and extreme weather events – this is where governments need to be focussing their attention.

“Our industry is being sacrificed for political expediency, to make it look like action is being taken to improve the prospects for the Reef’s future.”

When the Senate inquiry into the evidence base behind the reef regulations holds its hearings in Brisbane, CANEGROWERS will be urging it to recommend a thorough review of the way scientific research on Great Barrier Reef water quality is managed, scrutinised and used to justify government policies.