Cleaning up runoff onto the Great Barrier Reef: how art and science are inspiring farmers to help

Cleaning up runoff onto the Great Barrier Reef: how art and science are inspiring farmers to help
Simon Mattsson and Allan Maclean

Innovative Mackay farmers Simon Mattsson and Allan Maclean in a dual crop of sugar cane and sunflowers. The sunflowers shade out weeds, break the sugarcane monocrop by diversifying soil biology, and attract a lot of attention, triggering public discussions about the crucial role of soil health in reducing runoff to the Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Lucas Ihlein

Agriculture is a social and cultural activity, just as much as it is a process of environmental engineering, and the push to transform farming practices needs to recognise this. Top down incentive schemes do have some impact, but could there be a better way?

For instance, for sugar cane growers, the Smartcane Best Management Practice (BMP) Guidelines are an attempt by the industry to shift farming practices towards compliance with government directives to reduce run-off impacts on the reef.

The Smartcane BMP guidelines aim to improve farming practices through seven principles

  • Soil health and plant nutrition management
  • Pest, disease and weed management
  • Drainage and irrigation management
  • Crop production and harvest management
  • Natural systems management
  • Farm business management
  • Workplace health and safety management

One project which engages with this problem is Sugar vs the Reef? by artists Lucas Ihlein, Kim Williams and Ian Milliss. over the next two years, the project will coordinate a collaboration between Mackay Botanical Gardens, sugar cane farmers and community members to plant a dual crop of sunflowers and sugar cane as a highly visible work of “land art”. Over two years, the project will engage sugarcane farmers, artists, high school students, members of the Australian South Sea Islander community, the Greater Whitsunday Food Network, soil and reef scientists, as well as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Author by:

Senior Lecturer, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong

ARC DECRA Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

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