Farmers in the Wet Tropics region of north Queensland say they are fed up with being painted as villains whose very existence poses a threat to the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been committed in the federal election campaign to reducing the amount of potentially harmful run-off of chemicals, nutrients and sediment from farms.
But instead of galvanising the support of farmers, many have become disillusioned by the political debate and the subtext that farmers are responsible for damaging the reef.
Regulators also have come under increasing pressure to act after a recent report found improvements in water had not been quick or effective enough.
They recommended, among other things, a legal cap on the amount of fertiliser farmers could use if other measures did not work.
Farmers have lack of faith in best management initiative
According to peak body, Canegrowers, 1,300 farms, representing more than 60 per cent of the cane growing area in Queensland, have begun the process of best management practice, or BMP, the framework for benchmarking farmers’ performance against key environmental indicators.
Only 105 individual farming operations, fewer than five per cent of the 3,700 across the state, have been fully accredited.
Tully cane grower Peter Jackson was not one of them. His reluctance, he explained, stemmed from a lack of faith in the BMP process rather than its objectives.
He said records from past environmental audits had been lodged, and lost, by government departments with no obvious benefit to the environment or industry.
“When I see an inept sort of thing like that, I get quite browned off and it really does eat at your belief in the agencies to do the correct thing,” Mr Jackson said.
“I’m quite happy to do it, we’re already conforming to it, it’s just the paperwork to tick it and flick it.
“But talking to other fellas about it, you know, what are they going to do next? Come back in 12 months and say ‘well we want this’ or ‘we want that’?
“The feeling is, we’d like things resolved and if that’s what you want, we’ll do it but don’t keep shifting the goalposts.”
Farmers trying to reduce environmental footprint
Driving around Mr Jackson’s far north Queensland cane farm, his commitment to improving the quality of water leaving his property was obvious.
At every turn there was a wetland, drain or siltation trap, all of which were designed and built by Mr Jackson over the past 25 years with one purpose in mind.
“I’m hoping I’m not handing on any downstream ill effects,” Mr Jackson explained, as he steered his four-wheeler along the heavily-grassed banks of a three-metre drain dissecting his farm.
On the other bank, he pointed to a row of eucalyptus trees, “the ones that survived [cyclone] Yasi” and behind it, a large lagoon covered in purple-flowering water lilies where barramundi and other fish species have been known to thrive.
Mr Jackson said he viewed himself as a typical farmer looking for continual improvement to his farm efficiency and reducing its environmental footprint.
“I suppose innovation is a thing we’re doing all the time; I think we [have to] just continue to fine tune what we’ve been doing for the past 15 years since we’ve gone to green cane [harvesting],” he said.
“There’s a lot that’s been done.”
But his biggest frustration was the absence of any specific data on his Tully cane farm which would enable him to quantify his environmental progress.
The last water sampling was undertaken by fisheries scientists involved in an electro-fishing project 10 years ago and none had been recorded since.
“The last thing we want to do is hand on a problem and I’d just like to see some truth in the debate,” Mr Jackson said.
“When somebody puts something forward, what do you base your science on and show us, you know.”
BMP offers ‘defence’ against regulation
Mr Jackson may have been echoing the sentiment of many farmers who believed they had already been doing the right thing by the Great Barrier Reef — with or without BMP accreditation.
But a few kilometres down the Bruce Highway, his neighbour Chris Condon has taken a different approach and is embracing BMP.
A relative newcomer to the industry, the young grazier-turned-cane farmer said accreditation offered the best protection against the realities of the current political and commercial environment.
“If we can actually put our name to something like BMP, we can sell ourselves to the world,” Mr Condon said.
“We’ve got this really good, solid program that’s independently audited; it’s to an international standard so when things such as [the threat of] regulation come along, we’ve actually got some defence.”
But he said the negative portrayal of the sugar industry’s environmental record weighed heavily on his farming future.
“Oh, it is a worry for me because I want to be farming for the rest of my life,” he said.
“We’re trying to set ourselves up forever here on the cane farm and to think that regulation can come in and shut us down, that is very scary for me.”
Farmers need to be ‘drivers of change’: behavioural scientist
With opinion clearly divided about the best way forward, the industry has enlisted behavioural scientist John Pickering to work with growers in the Wet Tropics region about ways they might lead the process of change in farming.
Dr Pickering said the prominence of the debate about the health of the reef had taken a toll on farmers but it was only one “threat” among many other economic and social issues.
Growers had not told their story particularly well, he said, partly due to “modesty”.
However, if governments were genuinely committed to improving outcomes for the Great Barrier Reef, farmers must be a part of the conversation.
“If we’re thinking about solutions and not just pointing the finger and blaming, we need to understand that the sugar cane industry is central to the issues that are happening within the reef,” he said.
“Therefore, this is the industry that is in the driver seat of being able to solve the issue and lead the change process.”