World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

vibrant colored fish and coral under the ocean

Sustainable Agriculture on the Agenda: The Great Barrier Reef Case

  • Date: 27 September 2023

Agriculture is one of the most essential aspects of our society—it sustains life, it creates jobs— contributing USD $3.6 trillion and employing 27% of the world’s workforce.¹

The need for sustainable resource management is more important than ever. Without it, agricultural production consumes excessive water (about 70% of the planet’s fresh water). It also significantly contributes to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and is a leading pollutant in many countries, infiltrating water, marine ecosystems, air and soil.

Unsustainable farming practices can not only have serious impacts on the environment but on people as well. When managed sustainably, agriculture can help preserve and restore critical habitats, improve soil health and improve water quality. With demand growing for food, WWF is working with key stakeholders, including governments, companies and farmers to implement better management practices that benefit both the environment and the producers’ bottom line.

Case Study: The Great Barrier Reef Catchments

Located off the Queensland coast in Australia lives one of the world’s seven natural wonders and the largest coral reef ecosystem on earth the Great Barrier Reef. It’s also a World Heritage Area, meaning the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated it as having “outstanding universal value” hoping to ensure its protection for future generations.

It’s no surprise, as the Reef is an intricate biodiversity hotspot, composed of 3,000 individual reef systems, 600 tropical islands, and 300 coral cays. Providing life to a variety of plants and marine life, including sea turtles, reef fish, and 134 species of sharks, this area is also one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. Tourism to the reef brings in about $6 billion annually and supports about 69,000 Australian jobs. It’s host to a major fishing industry as well.

Yet, the Great Barrier Reef is vulnerable to multiple threats, including farm pollution, some of which is coming from sugarcane farms. Nitrogen run-off from farm fertilizer can enter waterways and is linked to outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish that cause damage to coral tissue and reef deterioration. Crown of thorns starfish have destroyed over 40% of the Reef’s coral cover.

To address this, WWF-Australia joined forces with The Coca-Cola Foundation in 2009 and together with farmers, the Australian Government and natural resource management groups (Reef Catchments, NQ Dry Tropics and Terrain) and Project Catalyst was born.

Project Catalyst works directly with sugarcane farmers to help them identify and trial cutting-edge practices that can reduce their environmental footprint while also enhancing crop production. It’s unique as it demonstrates the connectedness between ecosystems. Efforts begin on the farm, including managing soil to maximize crop yields and evolving chemical management plans that reduce run-off chemical residues into the freshwater nearby. From there, farmers also are working to improve water management and developing nutrient management plans that help reduce nutrient losses into the streams that travel along the Great Barrier Reef Catchments on the North Queensland coast.

In total, there are approximately 4,000 growers growing 378,000 ha of sugarcane across the Reef catchments. When the project began in 2009, Project Catalyst only worked with 19 of those 3,777 farmers. Over 14 years of implementation, the project supported 209 sugarcane growers on trialing innovative practices and adoption of best practices to improve water quality flowing to the Great Barrier Reef. Across the six Natural Resource Management regions in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment, the project works in three: Wet Tropics, Burdekin, and Mackay Whitsunday. Altogether, Project Catalyst has worked 47,390 ha of farmland, more than double the size of Arcadia National Park, which accounts for 13% of sugarcane farming land in Queensland.

Sugarcane plantation in Queensland, Australia.

Since 2019, the farmers have saved 36.2 metric tons of dissolved inorganic nitrogen from entering the Great Barrier Reef, with 5.2 metric tons saved in the Mackay Whitsundays, 5.8 metric tons in Burdekin, and 25.2 metric tons in the Wet Tropics. These practical changes have demonstrated significant reduction in pollutant loads which resulted in improved water quality that reduces the risk of biodiversity loss among corals—and that’s just with the efforts of around 5.5% of sugarcane growers in the Queensland.

This project is ongoing, with The Coca-Cola Foundation serving alongside Reef Trust and local implementing partners such as Catchment Solutions.

Our world is rapidly growing, and as our population continues to surge, so will the demand for food production— and the demand on our planet’s precious resources. It’s more evident than ever that we need to scale and accelerate sustainable practices to halt the negative effects agriculture can have on our planet, and all who call it home. As we always say, a healthy business depends on a healthy planet. Through increased efforts such as Project Catalyst, the agricultural industry can be a part of the solution. By using more planet-friendly farming practices, including improving water quality through responsible water management, encouraging biodiversity conservation, and reducing the impacts priority commodities can have, farmers can help create a more productive and sustainable future for farming.

[1] FAO. 2022. World Food and Agriculture – Statistical Yearbook 2022. Rome.