The Reef Bill returned to the Queensland Parliament this week and while at the time of writing it hadn’t yet passed, it will. Despite farmers and their representative bodies actively engaging in various government processes, compiling evidence-based submissions, attending regional hearings, signing online petitions, and even picketing at protests, the government has not heard the farming community. No changes were made to the Bill and many farmers will understandably be disillusioned by this.
One of the government’s main justifications for increasing the regulation of agricultural practices is its claim that the take-up of industry-led best management practice (BMP) programs and other voluntary programs has been too slow. Looking at practice change in the sugar cane industry, which has been a focal point, 80 per cent of the crop is now cut green leaving a mulch blanket on the paddock, and 80 per cent of growers now use fallow rotations to protect and nourish their soil between crops. One in every four hectares of Queensland’s cane area (25 per cent) has been accredited under the industry’s Smartcane BMP program in under four years – these results are on track with the contracted milestones for this program.
Another justification is that the recently released 2017-2018 Reef Water Quality Report Card found that water quality is improving on a regional scale, but too slowly. What hasn’t been explained is that due to the 12-month lag with data collection, the design of some voluntary programs (i.e. results are largely realised at the end of the programs) and the nature of agricultural systems, much of the water quality improvement information published is a long way behind on farm reality.
For example, QFF manages a large, Reef-wide voluntary project that supports farmers to change practices in cane, grazing, horticulture, bananas, grains and cropping, which is mostly completed. The cane component of this project is estimated to achieved dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) savings of 346 tonnes but only 106 tonnes has been reported in the most recent report card, which means 70 per cent of the DIN reduction is not included. Additionally, the report cards do not factor in the impact of severe and unavoidable weather events such as cyclones and droughts, which can quickly undo progress.
When considering progress made to date, it is also important to point out that there is significant under-investment to realise the ambitious water quality targets set by governments. For example, for the five years 2017-18 to 2021-22, the Queensland and Australian Governments have collectively allocated $614 million towards improving water quality, which equates to just 7.5 per cent of estimated cost of achieving the targets.
Reef protection regulations aren’t new, they have been in place for the cane and grazing industries in three of the six Reef catchments for some time. However, a proper analysis on how effective these regulations have been to date in delivering water quality outcomes and how much they have cost to implement and enforce has not been undertaken. Without this analysis and understanding, how does anyone know what the full economic, social and environmental costs of expanding the regulations will be or what water quality benefits they will deliver to the Reef?
No one is questioning the value of the Great Barrier Reef or that we must do what we can to improve its health and extend its adaptation window in the face of climate change, which is its greatest threat. Over the past few years there has been an exponential increase of farmer participation in BMP and other voluntary practice improvement programs, and for every dollar government invests, farmers on average are investing about $1.60.
Industry-led BMP and other voluntary programs incentivise and empower farmers and deliver real practice change. They are a structured and successful pathway for realising improved farm management practices and have supported farmers to gain a better understanding of their business and adopt improvements. Properly resourced, they remain the right vehicle for agriculture to continue doing its bit for the Reef.