Stretching over 2,300km along the coast of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is a living wall of coral. Home to 1,500 species of fish, 3,000 molluscs, threatened marine turtles, and the vulnerable dugong, this extremely fragile ecosystem is at risk due to climate change, overfishing and pollution. But one Queensland industry is striving to reduce its impact on the reef.

Project Catalyst aims to reduce runoff and pesticide use by Queensland sugar cane farmers. By improving farming techniques, utilising new technology and increasing productivity the initiative supports farmers striving to lessen damage to the reef. 

Founded five years ago by the Coca-Cola Australia Foundation, WWF and Reef Catchments, Project Catalyst empowers producers to improve their farming practices while reducing their environmental footprint, according to Coca-Cola Australia Foundation’s Michelle Allen.

“Integral to the Projects success, it’s the growers who are the ones generating the ideas, they’re the ones leading Project Catalysts success,” Michelle said.

The program funds farmers to deploy cutting-edge agriculture systems, using GPS and laser interception technology to reduce pesticide and herbicide use while increasing crop yields. Project Catalyst also puts producers in touch with researchers investigating the effect of the measures, and agribusiness specialists who help grow their business.

“What were trying to do with this program is show that you can have win-wins,” said Reef Catchments CEO Robert Cocco, who’s been with the program since its inception. “Its not environment at the expense of economics, and not economics at the expense of the environment. More often than not, were achieving really good outcomes from both.”

And, thus far, it’s working. Some farms participating in Project Catalyst have seen up to a 30-40 per cent reduction in nutrient sediment and chemical loads being released into the reef. While the project started with a mere 13 farms on board, it now takes in more than 70 farmers stretching from Sarina up to Cairns, with a waiting list of additional producers who are keen to get involved.

This month, those farmers will get together at the Project Catalyst Growers Forum on Hamilton Island to discuss their discoveries and innovations, while hearing from keynote speakers about new techniques. WWF Sustainable Agriculture Program Manager, Rob Cairns, said the forum’s success is in bringing together a diverse group of people with the ability to effect real change. 

“The challenges facing agriculture and the Great Barrier Reef are immense and all stakeholders need to work together like never before,” he said. “Project Catalyst brings a diverse group of people and organisations together to trial and validate practices that are good for famers, good for the community and good for the reef.  We can all be very proud of this collaboration, as well as the outcomes achieved so far.”

For his part, Robert Cocco is optimistic about the future of the Reef. “I think if we werent going to be optimistic, we wouldnt be here doing the program,” he says. Weve got a long way to go, and theres still more work to be done, but were heading in the right direction.”