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Sugar and the Barrier Reef

Environment Minister Greg Hunt's Reef 2050 plan has had a mixed response so far because it's said to lack any bold new initiatives. But there's a few ideas that might have a big impact where it matters.

One of the most important things we can do to save the reef is to reduce fertiliser runoff, mostly from sugar cane farms. Outbreaks of the crown of thorns starfish are killing massive areas of coral and the starfish thrives on the nitrogen in the fertilisers.

What's more, if the starfish can be stopped the coral will recover enough to help the reef cope with the damaging impacts of climate change.

For the past ten years governments, farmers and scientists have been devising new farming practices that reduce pollution to the reef. There's been some promising results, but farmers are basically still using excess fertiliser.

Last year I did some analysis for WWF-Australia on the government's $200m Reef Rescue program, which provides grants to farmers to subsidise new farm management practices. I recommended that the government target practices and locations that get the best results for the reef. The way to do it is to get farmers to lodge competitive tenders for grants instead of offering standard grants to all farmers, and then select the tenders that get the best results at the lowest price.

Now the Minister has announced a $5m Reef Tender as part of Reef 2050 targeting fertiliser use by sugar cane farmers in the Wet Tropics region, the highest risk area for the crown of thorns. Under Reef Tender farmers choose the actions they want to adopt and set the price they want to be paid. With the help of CSIRO the government will then select the tenders that offer the best results for the reef.

Reef Tender is small compared to the total $200m for Reef Rescue. But I'm hopeful it'll highlight the higher risk changes in farming practice that governments should be subsidising and those that farmers should adopt anyway because they improve their productivity.

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