Skip to main content

Great Barrier Reef and sugarcane production

StarfishProject vision: to help protect the Great Barrier Reef by enabling upstream sugarcane growers make better nitrogen fertiliser decisions

Nitrogen fertiliser lost from sugarcane farming is one of the main pollutants threatening the health of the Great Barrier Reef, along with sediments and pesticides. Despite substantial investment in improving agricultural management practices, the improvement in water quality is not yet on track to meet ecological targets for protecting the health of the Reef’s ecosystems.

Researchers in a cane field
Digiscape Postdoctoral fellow, Dr Yuri Shendryk, and the team in a cane field near Cairns

Traditional water quality monitoring approaches can be very slow to feed information back to farmers, so farmers have no practical way to judge the effect of management practices on water quality. The situation is similar for crop production because information on cane yields comes when the crop is harvested, typically 8-14 months after management decisions are made.

Digiscape’s Great Barrier Reef project aims to ‘untie the cropping-nitrogen-water quality Gordian knot’ and improve management of agricultural lands in Reef catchments. This will in turn reduce ecological stresses on Reef ecosystems, such as fewer and smaller outbreaks of both crown-of-thorns starfish and the coral bleaching that they cause.

We are developing a platform that will provide farmers with near real-time information on nitrogen in local waterways so farmers will be able to evaluate the water quality outcomes of their practices much more quickly. Sensing of crop growth will provide farmers with within-season indications of crop performance, thus providing shorter-term information that can be related to current management actions.

This project is led by Dr Peter Thorburn.