Cane farmers say Paradise Dam rebuild essential

CANE farmers have again called on the Palaszczuk government to restore Paradise Dam back to its original 300,000 megalitre capacity rather than permanently reducing the dam’s capacity by 57 per cent.

Farmers say while community safety is paramount, they were concerned for the future of agriculture in the Bundaberg region. It’s a view equally shared by fruit and vegetable growers.

Work began to lower the dam wall height by 5.8m last month, after concerns were raised about the stability of the structure and the safety of downstream communities in a major flood event.

Canegrowers Isis chairman Mark Mammino said it was a travesty to see the dam wall being lowered.

We need the dam fixed. It needs to be remediated to its original capacity in the shortest amount of time possible.– Mark Mammino

“We need the dam fixed,” Mr Mammino said. “It needs to be remediated to its original capacity in the shortest amount of time possible.

“We need water security to continue the growth in agriculture that has been occurring since this irrigation scheme was first established.”

The contractor currently reducing the height of the wall is part of the CIMIC Group, which originally constructed the $240 million dam on the Burnett River.

Mr Mammino said all sides of politics needed to stop playing games and treating farmers likes pawns on a chess board, particularly in an election year.

“We all want a safe dam that protects the lives and livelihoods of the Bundaberg region,” Mr Mammino said.

“We need SunWater and the political leaders to sit down with us and develop a plan for the future.”

LNP Natural Resources spokesman Dale Last described spending $100m to lower the Paradise wall by 5.8m as an absolute disgrace.

“Wide Bay Burnett farmers have been ignored and the economic security of the region has been put at risk by Labor,” Mr Last said.

“Tearing down dams in the middle of a drought shows that the Palaszczuk government doesn’t understand regional Queensland and doesn’t back our farmers.”

Mr Last said the LNP had a plan to fix Paradise Dam, by working with international experts and at a fraction of the cost.

Engineer Ken Pearce said Paradise Dam continued to fail because Queensland’s executive managers had not accepted strategic advice from professional dam engineers.

“While civil engineers typically build infrastructure, dam engineers build and operate large dams, and ensure that dams built by civil engineers are fit for purpose,” Mr Pearce said.

“In functional terms, dam engineers strategically manage the risks inherent in the building and operation of large dams; and teach dam engineering to civil engineers.”

Ban on toxic mercury looms in sugar cane farming, but Australia still has a way to go

This month, federal authorities finally announced an upcoming ban on mercury-containing pesticide in Australia. We are one of the last countries in the world to do so, despite overwhelming evidence over more than 60 years that mercury use as fungicide in agriculture is dangerous.

Mercury is a toxic element that damages human health and the environment, even in low concentrations. In humans, mercury exposure is associated with problems such as kidney damage, neurological impairment and delayed cognitive development in children.

The ban will prevent about 5,280 kilograms of mercury entering the Australian environment each year.

But Australia is yet to ratify an international treaty to reduce mercury emissions from other sources, such as the dental industry and coal-fired power stations. This is our next challenge.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visiting a sugar cane farm in 2019. Mercury-containing pesticides will be banned. Cameron Laird/AAP

A mercury disaster

Mercury became a popular pesticide ingredient for agriculture in the early 1900s, and a number of poisoning events ensued throughout the world.

They include the Iraq grain disaster in 1971-72, when grain seed treated with mercury was imported from Mexico and the United States. The seed was not meant for human consumption, but rural communities used it to make bread, and 459 people died.

In the decades since, most countries have banned the production and/or use of mercury-based pesticides on crops. In 1995 Australia discontinued their use in most applications, such as turf farming.

Despite this, authorities exempted a fungicide containing mercury known as Shirtan. They restricted its use to sugar cane farming in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

According to the sugar cane industry, about 80% of growers use Shirtan to treat pineapple sett rot disease.

But this month, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority cancelled the approval of the mercury-containing active ingredient in Shirtan, methoxyethylmercuric chloride. The decision was made at the request of the ingredient’s manufacturer, Alpha Chemicals.

Shirtan’s registration was cancelled last week. It will no longer be produced in Australia, but existing supplies can be sold to, and used by, sugar cane farmers for the next year until it is fully banned.

Workers and nature at risk

Over the past 25 years, Australia’s continued use of Shirtan allowed about 50,000 kilograms of mercury into the environment. The effect on river and reef ecosystems is largely unknown.

What is known is that mercury can be toxic even at very low concentrations, and research is needed to understand its ecological impacts.

The use of mercury-based pesticide has also created a high risk of exposure for sugar cane workers. At most risk are those not familiar with safety procedures for handling toxic materials, and who may have been poorly supervised. This risk has been exacerbated by the use itinerant workers, particularly those from a non-English speaking background.

Further, in the hot and humid conditions of Northern Australia, it has been reported that workers may have removed protective gloves to avoid sweating. Again, research is needed to determine the implication of these practices for human health.

To this end, Mercury Australia, a multi-disciplinary network of researchers, has formed to address the environmental, health and other issues surrounding mercury use, both contemporary and historical.

Australia is yet to ratify

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to control mercury use and release into the environment. Australia signed onto the convention in 2013 but is yet to ratify it.

Until the treaty is ratified, Australia is not legally bound to its obligations. It also places us at odds with more than 100 countries that have ratified it, including many of Australia’s developed-nation counterparts.

Australia’s outlier status in this area is shown in the below table:

Accession, acceptance or ratification have the same legal effect, where parties follow legal obligations under international law.

Mercury-based pesticide use was one of Australia’s largest sources of mercury emissions. But if Australia ratifies the convention, it would be required to control other sources of mercury emissions, such as dental amalgam and the burning of coal in power stations.

The three active power stations in the Latrobe Valley, for example, together emit about 1,200 kilograms of mercury each year.

Time to look at coal

If Australia ratified the Minamata Convention, it would provide impetus for a timely review and, if necessary, update of mercury regulations across Australia.

Emissions from coal-fired power stations in Australia are regulated by the states through pollution control licences. Some states would likely have to amend these licences if Australia ratified the convention. For example, Victorian licences for coal-fired power stations currently do not include limits on mercury emissions.

Pollution control technologies were introduced at Australian coal plants in the early 1990s. But they do not match state-of-the-art technologies applied to coal plants in North America and Europe.

Australian environment authorities have been examining the implications of ratifying the convention. But progress is slow.

The issue of mercury emissions does not attract significant public or political attention. But there is a global scientific consensus that coordinated international action is needed.

The pesticide phase-out and ban is an important step. But Australia still has a way to go.

Soil Health Key to Reducing Fertiliser Rates

Ask cane grower Robert Bonassi how he’s slashed fertiliser rates without affecting yield and he has two words – soil health.

The third-generation farmer is focused on fallow crops, mill by-products and soil tests in his transition to cane that is less reliant on artificial fertilisers, and he says the journey has been both challenging and rewarding.

Mr Bonassi is one of 39 Wet Tropics growers to take advantage of the Australian Government’s Reef Trust IV tender program, delivered through the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership. The program is helping to finance changes reducing fertiliser use on these farms, and potentially other farms in the future.

The Ingham grower cut his fertiliser rates by up to 20 per cent over four years – moving from 160kg of nitrogen per hectare to 120 – 130kg for plant cane and 145kg for ratoons.

He said the take-home message was simple – you need to maintain healthy soils.

“I’ve learned you can’t drop the ball – you’ve got to keep the soil healthy when you’re reducing nitrogen and phosphorous,’’ he said.

“We’d always taken soil samples but now we target every block we fallow on a yearly basis.”

The Bonassi family grows cane on 180 hectares over four parcels of land, with 25 of those hectares under fallow crops at any given time. They moved to mounded rows and zonal tillage to solve waterlogging issues in the wet season, manufactured a zonal ripper and mounder, and bought a bean planter last year.

soil health

They are also sold on mill mud and mill ash for its nutrient and soil conditioner properties.

“We apply sub-surface mill mud and ash in the fallows. Slowly, slowly it is building our soils up and helping us with reducing our fertilisers,” Robert said.

“Living 35km from the mill we needed to think about ways to reduce costs, so we get it bulk-delivered and we bought our own spreader. Now we can control the rate. We spread zonally at the end of every year, using about 80 tonnes to a hectare. We can target where we put it depending on the state of the ground.

“Within five years we’ll have gone across the whole farm with 80 to 100 tonnes per hectare of mud and ash and we should start seeing results. Then we’ll look at halving that and see if we can still meet the nitrogen levels.”

He said the regular soil tests also helped to maintain calcium and magnesium levels, with lime applied when needed.

“At this stage we’re not saving money but our yield hasn’t been affected and overall it feels like we are getting there,’’ he said.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do – get the soils back up.”

His farm is 6km from the ocean “as the crow flies”. Two of the parcels of land have three creeks running through them and one shares a boundary with national park land.

The Bonassis constructed silt ponds a decade or so ago with the help of another Federal Government Reef grant and most of their drains run into them. They have spoon and grassed drains to slow the flow of water off the paddock.

“It’s all about getting a good balance – good returns on the soil while minimising run-off to the very best of our ability,’’ he said.

“I always remember visiting an older farmer on a trip in my late 20s as part of a Young Farmers group. That was more than 25 years ago and he had already moved to 1.8m rows. He told us if you’re making changes, give it 110 per cent. That’s what I do now. What worked well last year doesn’t always work well this year, so it keeps you on your toes.”

Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership extension officer Jarrod Sartor said incremental change was the way forward for growers.

“An important message when reducing fertiliser is not to drop it by too much too quickly or without fixing other constraints, or you risk losing productivity,’’ he said. “By regular soil testing, ameliorating with mill by-products and lime and using legumes as a break crop, you can constantly improve the soil to better use the fertiliser being placed.”

Industry Leaders Collaborate to Promote Sugarcane Imidacloprid Stewardship Program

The program aims to encourage the correct placement of imidacloprid in the field to ensure maximum performance against cane grubs, and the strategic use of the product to ensure longevity of the product.  By getting these use aspects right, research trial data indicates that benefits may also flow to nearby waterways and the Great Barrier Reef.

With the support of Sugar Research Australia (SRA) and the Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), Bayer and Nufarm have worked together to create an instructional video, training package and an application slot depth measurement gauge for use in ratoon cane applications. Initially, the group will train 750 growers in the Mackay Whitsunday and Wet Tropics regions with the eventual aim of the materials reaching all Australian sugarcane growers.

The program is based on several years of research work conducted by SRA and DAF. 

Emilie Fillols, Senior Researcher with SRA based at their Meringa Station said, “Growers should first consider if they need to treat their blocks for cane grubs, which is a decision based on a risk assessment. If treatment is necessary, achieving an application depth of 100 mm or more is essential to reduce imidacloprid loss via runoff. Three years of field trials in the Wet Tropics and the Burdekin have confirmed the critical importance of application depth in preventing loss of imidacloprid.

”Nick Matthews, Market Development Agronomist with Bayer stated that Confidor Guard and Nuprid 350SC liquid imidacloprid are critical tools to control cane grubs, however, they need to be used correctly.  “Bayer has worked hard to prepare a relevant and easily accessible training video and presentation. Our first goal is to train all retail agronomists, and then work with the relevant productivity services organisations and other organisations to train their agronomists. While the minimum depth message is simple, achieving this in field in all areas poses many challenges. Our training video and materials cover a wide variety of machine types and situations.” 

For Dave Rumbold, Regulatory Lead ANZ with Nufarm, a practical contribution to the success of the program has been the Confidor Guard and Nuprid 350SC Depth Gauge. One thousand of these sturdy tools will be made available, free of charge, to growers, agronomists and contract applicators. “These tools will allow growers to easily measure slot depth across several locations in their blocks to ensure they are achieving the minimum depths for efficient treatment,” he said. 

Richard Dickmann, Public Affairs and Sustainability with Bayer, said “The program is a great example of how industry, government and growers can work together to address issues for the ultimate benefit of both growers and our environment.”

Sugarcane regions urged to look at producing bioplastics, but viability a concern

As Queensland cane farmers and mills grapple with low sugar prices, a North Queensland politician has renewed calls for the industry to diversify by manufacturing bioplastics.

Bioplastics are made from plant-based materials and are appealing as eco-friendly wrapping due to their ability to break down.

The Member for Mackay, Labor’s Julieanne Gilbert, said cane-farming regions were well placed to pioneer the industry.

“We have got an abundance of resources right here in Mackay,” she said.

“We’ve got feedstock we can use from our sugarcane crops, we’ve got plenty of water, we’ve got power, we’ve got land … and highly skilled people.”

Plastic cutlery
Single-use plastics are a major contributor to landfill, and biodegradable plastic would help solve that problem.(ABC RN: Fiona Pepper)

But Canegrowers Mackay chairman Kevin Borg said Australia did not have the right commercial or political environment to make the venture viable.

“Viability is the main word in this because at the end of the day we need government policy behind these things for it to take off,” he said.

Support needed

Mr Borg said there needed to be government support, through policy and funding, to make the venture realistic.

“People have to make a quid off it,” he said.

“If the government could come in with some policy to support these things, then I have no doubt growers would want to be a part of it … we’re all ears.”

Mr Borg said there needed to be more research and discussion about what part of the cane contributes to plastic manufacturing, and how it would impact sugar profits.

“There’s a discussion to be had about whether we can sacrifice sugar,” he said.

“At the end of the day if I’m a sugarcane grower and I’m sacrificing sugar and the price of sugar skyrockets, who’s going to take a cut on sugar to make plastics?

“Growers virtually at this stage get nothing out of value add.

“There’s got to be a discussion between growers and mills, and also industry and government.”

Manufacturing from by-products a ‘win-win’

Ms Gilbert said manufacturing bioplastics did not have to impact sugar profits.

“A lot of these products are made from the by-product of the processing of cane, so it’s a win-win for everyone,” she said.

“Everybody’s sitting there saying they want to be part of this but nobody’s pushing it.”

Queensland University of Technology chemistry professor, William Doherty, said the idea was not a new one.

“From 2004 there’s been a lot of interest to convert biomass into plastics, so over the years I’ve had a number of PhD students working on trying to use sugarcane fibre to convert it into plastics,” he said.

Dr Doherty said he was doubtful bioplastic manufacturing would gain much traction in Mackay in the near future.

“It’s not realistic because it comes to the stalk availability,” he said.

“I’m not trying to be negative here, I’m just saying that one of the stopping locks tends to be the stalk supply, it’s always been the problem.”

Could create thousands of manufacturing jobs

Ms Gilbert said she was approaching companies to gauge their interest in plant-based packaging, and working with State Government bodies to assess demand.

She is building a case study to take to investors and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Ms Gilbert said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the country’s reliance on overseas manufacturing.

“I want to see Queensland and Mackay lead the charge of being able to fill that gap of having that supply chain of goods being made in Australia so we’re not caught in another situation like this,” she said.

Queensland’s Department of State Development, Innovation and Tourism said it was committed to creating a $1-billion sustainable and export-oriented industrial biotechnology and bioproducts sector.

“By 2035, an industrial biotechnology and bioproducts sector could support 6,640 full-time jobs in Queensland,” it said in a statement.

“The sector focusses on the development and manufacture of products such as bioplastics, biofuel, green chemicals, bioenergy, novel food and protein products, plant extractives and personal care, health and wellness.

“The Mackay region is ideally situated for the production of bioplastics with available industrial land, abundant feedstocks, ready access to a container port, local research expertise at CQU, the QUT Mackay Renewable Biocommodity Pilot Plant, and large markets for agricultural and industrial bioplastics.”