Benchmarking Rural Industries' Practices and Productivity Performance and Review of Industries' Capacity to Change
This project describes the main regional environmental challenges facing the Australian sugar industry and outlines the industry's response to these challenges in terms of changing management practice. This project provides analysis on national and industry regional scale and is not intended to have property level uses. Regional adoption rates of practices are documented and future directions for the industry are proposed.
One the major findings for the sugar industry is that it will need to be increasingly vigilant of its environmental performance due to its location near sensitive coastal ecosystems and the marine ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef. Competitive development pressures are on the industry from other rural industries and other sectors for land and water resources, and this places greater scrutiny on the industry's resource stewardship performance.
Major resource management issues confronting the industry include soil erosion, releases of acid from acid sulphate soils, degrading riparian areas, poor drainage, pesticide and fertiliser mobilisation off farm and waste disposal. The industry is attempting to address these issues through the preparation of best management practices (BMP), applied research and development and supporting extension programs.
KEY FACTS ABOUT THE SUGAR INDUSTRY
- Single commodity and significant export earner
- Localised growing regions, specific mainly to areas along the northern seaboard
- Located close to environmentally sensitive marine ecosystems
- Well structured and experienced organisational support structure
- Substantial research and development budget
- Good science required to objectively address environmental issues
The sugar industry is located predominantly in coastal Queensland, with smaller production areas in northern New South Wales and the Ord Irrigation Area of Western Australia. The industry is divided into the following production areas:
- Northern Region (Mossman, Tableland, Babinda, Mourilyan, Mulgrave, South Johnstone and Tully mill areas)
- Herbert/Burdekin Region (Inkerman, Invicta, Kalamia, Macknade, Pioneer and Victoria mill areas)
- Central Region (Farleigh, Marian, Plane Creek, Pleystowe, Proserpine and Racecourse mill areas)
- Southern Region (Bingera, Fairymead, Isis, Maryborough, Millaquin, Moreton and Rocky Point mill areas)
- NSW Region (Broadwater, Condong and Harwood mill areas)
- WA Region (Ord River mill area)
The proportion of Australia's sugar area within each of these regions is:
|Region/mill area||Assigned area (ha)||Area harvested (ha)||% of Australian sugar area|
1 Briody, P (Ed) (1999), Australian Sugar Year Book 1999, Grant Cochrane, Brisbane: p 2272 Department of Agriculture, WA, pers. comm. 12/09/00
Sugar is grown predominantly in areas of higher rainfall and high temperatures along eastern areas north from Ballina in northern NSW to the north of Cairns, and in the Ord Irrigation Area in Western Australia. The crop is a tolerant crop to the vagaries of the weather and is grown on a variety of soil types and landscapes.
Soil types supporting sugar production include the highly fertile deep krasnozem soils, moderately deed to shallow duplex podzols and podzolics and alluvial soils on the floodplains of coastal rivers. The landscape supporting the sugar industry is also variable, however major production areas are restricted generally to flatter alluvial areas, low to moderate slopes and some isolated steeper areas.
The industry is supported by the infrastructure of processing mills and transport systems. In recent times, the horticulture industry competes for the productive soil and water resources.
In 1998, the production statistics for the Australian sugar industry were:
- 415,000 ha total used for sugar area
- 201,000 ha of sugar irrigated
- gross value of production of $1,248 million generated
Irrigation requirements in each of the sugar production districts are represented in the chart below. These charts illustrate that the northern areas of the country of well suited climatically to the production of sugar, with the northern areas requiring little or supplementary supplies only. The high evaporation rates experienced in the Ord increase irrigation demands for that region.
ABS (1999) Australian Agriculture estimate that in 1998, Australia produced 39.5 million tonnes of cane and 4.8 million tonnes of sugar. The total sugar cane value was $1,248 million. 27% of the sugar produced was retained for the domestic market and the remainder exported as shown in the pie chart below.
The regional distribution of sugar and cane production is outlined in the table below.
|Region/mill area||Cane(t)||Sugar(t)||CCS||Cane yield (t/ha)||t cane/t sugar|
1 Briody, P (Ed) (1999), Australian Sugar Year Book 1999, Grant Cochrane, Brisbane: pp 227 and 2302 Department of Agriculture, WA, pers. comm. 12/09/00
Major sugar production regions are located in the central coastal regions of Herbert/Burdekin and Central region. These regions have high commercial cane sugar (CCS) levels as well as higher cane yield. These central regions have more control of when water is applied due to a reliable irrigation supply and good growing conditions. This reduces the likelihood of reduced CCS due to the diluting effects of water inputs at harvest. Areas to the north periodically suffer from water logging, cyclone damage and insect damage. Areas to the south are generally cooler and are of low rainfall, resulting in lower yields. Most Queensland regions harvest every year, where as NSW region harvest every 18 months.
In 1998, the Australian sugar industry employed over 12,500 people across about 5,150 properties. These employment statistics include people employed in milling sectors as well as the production sector.
The change in the number of growers in each region between 1989 and 1999 was:
- Northern region - increased by 19% to 1,694 growers
- Herbert/Burdekin region - increased by 22% to 1,629 growers
- Central region - increased by 10% to 1,654 growers
- Southern region - increased by 5% to 1,505 growers
- NSW region - numbers not known
- WA region - became commercial in 1996, numbers not known
Key characteristics of Australian sugar producers and farms include the following industry and State averages:
|Industry average||Queensland||New South Wales||Western Australia|
|Median age of owner/ manager||49 years||49 years||51 years||67 years|
|Owner/manager completed university/ tertiary or trade||21%||21%||30%||-|
|Owner manager working 40 hrs/wk or more on the farm||82%||83%||76%||-|
|Level of farm income ($)||55,322||58,626||23,498||-|
|Level of farm debt ($)||298,727||308,695||204,179||-|
|Level of off-farm income ($)||20,188||20,796||14,446||-|
Industry extension staff suggests that prevailing industry conditions of 2000 reinforce trends towards lower farm incomes, increasing farm debt, declining and sometimes negative farm profit and an increasing reliance on off-farm income. This is the result of prolonged unseasonal wet weather in northern regions and unpredicted disease outbreak in other regions.
Despite these factors, farm ownership across most regions remains high and awareness of regional environmental issues and responsibilities is increasing. This is reflected by involvement in Landcare groups across all regions.
In 1996, an environmental audit was undertaken of farmers in the Queensland sugar industry. This audit reviewed a range of environmental parameters on 130 cane farms throughout Queensland and surveyed management practices and farmer attitudes at each farm. Consultation was also held with various other stakeholders such as Aboriginal groups, conservation groups, research organisations and local, state and commonwealth government staff.
The audit identified areas/issues of high environmental risk and areas of high priority for industry response. These risk areas and industry response area were grouped into the following categories.
High priority recommendations of the audit based on an assessment of high risk of environmental impact and/or effect on production levels, were grouped into the following categories:
- irrigation and drainage - riparian vegetation protection, maintenance of creek configuration, waterway erosion prevention, drainage restriction to low lying acid sulfate areas, licensing for irrigation from watercourses
- soil management - acid sulfate soil identification and management, minimising tillage during periods of high erosion risk
- dangerous goods and chemicals - licensing for fuel storages greater than 10 000 L
- fertiliser management - appropriate fixative measures on bare soil, careful monitoring of usage and soil testing to ensure correct application, prevention of leaching to ground water, prevention of runoff to surface water, appropriate storage measures
- herbicide management - appropriate guidelines for use, appropriate storage measures
- waste management - waste tyre recycling, bunding of diesel tanks, appropriate disposal of waste chemical containers and irrigation materials, rehabilitation of farm dumps, appropriate storage of waste lead acid batteries, appropriate design and use of oil spray pads
- ecology and conservation - prevention of wetlands draining and cropping, maintenance of good community perception of the industry through adherence to legislation, increased understanding and appropriate management of regional habitats.
Many of these issues were considered by the Australian sugar industry when they developed their code of practice entitled Sustainable Cane Growing in Queensland in 1998. In New South Wales, production is limited to northern coastal areas were acid sulfate soils are and issue. In response, they have developed Best Practices Guidelines for Acid Sulfate Soils for use by the farming community.
Industry extension officers have also identified the main environmental issues affecting each production region. The issues listed in the table below are the main issues for each region. Other issues may also exist within these regions, but are not considered to be significant relative to those identified.
|Issue||Northern region||Herbert/ Burdekin region||Central region||Southern region||NSW region||WA region|
|Erosion in replanting||yes||yes||yes||yes||-||-|
|Erosion in ratoon||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Nutrient in runoff||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes|
|Acid sulfate soils||yes||-||yes||yes||yes||-|
|Pest and disease control||-||yes||-||-||yes||yes|
|Reduced oxygen in rivers||yes||yes||yes||-||yes||-|
|Pesticide in runoff||yes||yes||yes||-||yes||yes|
|Elevated groundwater levels||-||-||yes||yes||yes||yes|
A survey undertaken by the Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations (BSES) of Queensland and New South Wales cane farms identified a range of environmental issues affecting farms in the different sugar production regions. A summary of the levels of concern and percent of farms affected by each of the relevant environmental issues is provided in the graph below.
The sugar industry has prepared two separate codes of practice to assist in achieving sustainable production. These codes include:
- Sustainable Cane Growing in Queensland, 1998, developed and endorsed by CANEGROWERS, Queensland Department of Environment, CRC for Sustainable Sugar Production and BSES
- Fish Habitat Code of Practice 1999, developed by Queensland Department of Primary Industries and CANEGROWERS.
In addition to these codes, a set of guidelines for management of drain maintenance and acid sulfate soils has been developed for NSW cane farmers.
Sustainable Cane Growing in Queensland
This code provides guidelines/specifications for:
- development of new land - farm plans, vegetation retention and wetlands and drainage, including the issue of acid sulfate soils
- established farm management - farm plans, vegetation management, soil erosion management, fertiliser use, management of saline and sodic soils, irrigation methods, tailwater recycling and the use of treated waste water, wetlands and drainage, integrated pest management, rat and feral animal control, fire management, fuel and dangerous goods use and storage, waste management, on-farm monitoring.
In relation to acceptance and adoption of these guidelines, a BSES survey (O'Grady and Christiansen, 2000) of Australian cane farmers identified that an average of 79% of Queensland's responding growers are aware that a Code of Practice exists for their industry and that 62% currently have a copy. These statistics compare with the fact that all cane growers were sent a copy of the Code when it was launched in 1998.
More than a third of all growers surveyed responded as not having read the Code. Of the Queensland respondents who had a copy of the Code, 89% agreed either partially or completely with the recommendations of the Code.
95% of New South Wales respondents indicated that they believe it is important to have best practice guidelines and two-thirds felt that the sugar industry should be responsible for the development of these guidelines.
The industry's key research and extension body, the BSES, support and encourage the adoption of these guidelines through coordinated and designated programs.
Fish Habitat Code of Practice
This code was developed as an alternative to the individual issue of permits under the Fisheries Act 1994. Its use potentially benefits accredited growers by reducing time and costs involved in individual assessments for on-farm drainage maintenance permits.
The code discusses the value of fisheries habitats, issues such as potential impacts and seasonality that must be considered, activities covered and excluded by the code, emergency situations, education and accreditation and monitoring and reporting requirements. It provides criteria for authorised on-farm maintenance activities including low impact maintenance, chemical and other weed control activities, pruning, works in drains, acid sulfate soils, drainage sediment removal, marine plant removal and notification and signage required prior to, during and post works. Mitigation techniques for making farm drains more 'fish friendly' are also provided.
Best Practice Guidelines for Acid Sulfate Soils
These guidelines recommend management practices to producers who are growing sugar cane in areas either affected by acid sulfate soils (ASS) or areas of potential acid sulfate soils (PASS). These areas are sensitive environments and the focus of the guidelines are to educate the industry on:
- likely locations of ASS and PASS
- pre-development management requirements
- ongoing management requirements post development.
Particular management issues addressed include drainage management, soil treatment procedures and response procedures.
Best Practice Adoption
The regional adoption of the practices outlined in these codes and guidelines varies as shown in the table and charts below.
|Management practice||Adoption rate (%)|
|Northern region||Herbert/ Burdekin region||Central region||Southern region||NSW region||WA region|
|Farm plan exists||63||63/66||61||58/56||69||na|
|Reduced cultivation in last 10 years||70||70/85||83||62/70||73||na|
|Undertaken a farm chemical accreditation course||70||74/73||75||72/90||86||na|
|Surface fertiliser application||39||57/2||50||32/13||15||na|
BSES (O'Grady and Christiansen 2000) also have surveyed the level of industry adoption of other recommended management practices. These are summarised in the following charts.
The industry is supported by a network of structures and organisations. These structures support the industry in areas such as marketing, infrastructure and research and development. Supportive bodies include peak bodies, government agencies, grain marketing organisations and R & D institutions. A summary of this structure is presented below.
|Australian Cane Farmers Federation
NSW Cane Growers Association
Ord River Canegrowers Association
Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation
|Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service
Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Bureau of Rural Sciences
Sugar Research and Development Corporation (SRDC)
Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Sugar Production
Research and Development
Research and development in the sugar industry is primarily undertaken through the BSES, the Sugar Research and Development Corporation (SRDC) and the Sugar Cooperative Research Centre (SCRC). The main areas of research in recent time includes:
- Soil erosion
- Acid release from soils
- Degrading riparian areas
- Poor soil drainage
- Pesticide and fertiliser mobilisation
BSES Research and Development
Funding for BSES research and development comes primarily from research grants (46%), assessment and sale of cane (31%) and from recurrent grants from the government (13%). In 1999, these sources provided near to $18.3 million in funds.
The crop management program is one of the key environmental programs funded. The key environment related objectives of the crop management program aim to:
- increase profitability through the introduction of crop management packages which increase sugar yields, minimise the impacts of weeds, pests and diseases and optimise crop water and nutrient efficiency
- minimise the environmental impact of farm activities both on-farm and off-farm.
Work undertaken in 1998/99 to help achieve these objectives include research into:
- the effects of green cane trash blankets on early and late harvest yields, soil nutrients, organic matter and microbial activity and on water conservation? weed control decision processes, weed competition and herbicide screening
- current nutrient use on farms, the capacity for use of commercial soil analyses to determine farm soil fertility trends, quantification of nitrogen fixation by endogenous bacteria in sugar cane, leaf material analyses for assessment of the significance of calcium/magnesium imbalance on nutrient balance.
Some of the research undertaken through BSES includes minimum tillage trials at Bundaberg, which have shown maintained yields under minimum tillage, although herbicide costs made the total cost comparable to conventional tillage. There is, however, the potential for reduced soil insecticide inputs should the improved ratio of beneficial soil insects to pests achieved in fallow be able to be carried through to the cropping cycle (Briody, 1999).
BSES engineers are also researching equipment required for the production, planting and harvest of cane planted at high density (Briody, 1999).
SRDC research and development
Funds for SRDC research are provided by growers and millers through a $0.15 levy per tonne of sugarcane harvested, which is matched by the Commonwealth Government on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to 0.5% of the gross value of cane production. In July 1998, an additional $13.45 million was made available to the industry for research and development over four years to June 2002 by the then Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, now Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry Australia (AFFA).
The SRDC's Research and Development Plan 1999-2004 (the R & D plan) uses the definition of sustainable production systems developed by the Australian Standing Committee on Agriculture in 1991. The three components forming this definition are:
- increased financial viability
- maintenance of the natural resource base
- minimising the impact of production on other ecosystems.
In order to promote sustainable production systems in the sugar industry, the R & D plan includes eight different programs aimed at improving various aspects of the industry. The proportion of funding being provided to each of these programs is outlined in the chart below.
Key strategies proposed for the SRDC's Environmental and natural resource management research and development program (Program 6) are:
- to reduce the losses of nutrients and chemicals and sustain the land and water resource through:
- on and off-site monitoring of nutrient, soil and chemical losses
- minimisation of these losses
- best management practice development and adoption
- management of hydrology.
- to reduce the environmental impact of sugar manufacturing operations by the development and adoption of sustainable practices and processes for reduction, reuse, recycling, treatment or disposal of:
- mill mud and ash
- liquid effluent and waste
- airborne particles.
- to enhance communication between the sugar industry and the community through:
- provision of clear and concise information on environmental issues
- development of procedures for catchment and land use planning.
The performance indicator proposed for measurement of the program outputs is adoption of environmental codes of practice by 75% of the industry.
The sugar industry is a dynamic industry located primarily along the eastern seaboard of Australia. The industry's production areas are environmentally sensitive due to their location relative to river systems discharging to the Great Barrier Reef, high population areas and areas of high habitat value. The sugar industry uses these natural resources intensively and as such, have the following key environmental issue areas:
- Soil erosion control,
- Immobilisation of acid from acid sulfate soils
- Containment of pesticides on-farm
- Biodiversity changes from vegetation clearing
In response, the industry as a whole has and is, developing environmental policies, codes and guidelines aimed at minimising impacts. These instruments are supported by network of support extension and research services, enabling informed adoption of technology. The adoption of recommended practices is increasing, particularly those practice changes that deliver positive environmental and economic outcomes. The rapid adoption of green cane trash blanketing is a good example.
The industry will continue to face environmental challenges, however, its current basis of incentive, education and regulatory structures positions the industry well for educated responses in the future.
In regional terms, growers are participating in the development of catchment management plans throughout the country. An example of this is the planning process being adopted by growers in the Johnstone River catchment. Growers, in conjunction with the State government, have produced a district set of best management practices in sustainable cane farming. These practices are documented in a grower prepared manual that has been supported by QDNR, BSES and CANEGROWERS. These documents form part of a wider catchment management plan where the interests of all stakeholders in the catchment are considered. Groups such as the cattle producers in the upper catchment, fishing operators along the coast and urban settlement requirements are considered in these plans.
How do these factors affect the future prospects of the industry?
The sugar industry is a rural industry that is concentrated mainly along the eastern seaboard from northern NSW to northern Queensland. The industry generally does not form part of mixed farming enterprises, although horticultural crops are occasionally grown in rotation and some cane farms are included as part of grazing operations. In addition, sugar production areas coincide with some of the more densely populated areas in Australia and are adjacent to highly environmental sensitive ecosystems ( eg Wet Tropics Area, Great Barrier Reef). This geographic location places particular stewardship pressures on the industry to be responsive in terms of management practice.
The nominated key environmental challenges for the industry include soil erosion, acid sulfate mobilisation, nutrient management, noxious weeds and riparian zone degradation have an immediate impact on cane farms. The industry is also alert to off site downstream effects. The industry's recent response to environmental issues has been coordinated through its research, code development and BMP. Grower adoption is always the challenge and this is being coordinated through BSES functions.
The sugar industry to date has been responsive to the NRM issues and have comprehensive codes and practice to assist growers. Future actions could well be determined by downstream impacts and the ability of the industry to contain impact on sensitive environments. Good science will be required to identify source and processes of degradation recurring.
Link to Map maker to make a map using this information.
Link to data available for download on "A spatially consistent sub-set of agricultural statistics (AgStats) data 1982/93 to 1996/97"
- Sugar Research and Development Corporation website
- Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Development website
- Canegrowers website
- Bureau of Sugar Experimental Research Stations
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