Environmental credentials

Significant adoption


  CANEGROWERS' environmental vision is to share responsibility for the long-term protection of our natural environment, alongside government, the community and other industries.
  • Care and responsibility for minimising and managing the impacts of our actions.
  • Sustainability - managing sugarcane farming into the future, caring for and respecting natural resources to preserve the rich landscapes in which cane growers live.
  • Continuous improvement - striving for ever-improving environmental performance.
  • Collaboration - working with others towards viable and practical solutions.
  • Fairness and honesty - fostering open, constructive and rational debate towards sustainable solutions.
  • Communication - openly sharing facts and engaging the community.
  • Unity - sharing and owning this vision across the entire organisation and our partners.
  • Understanding - supporting sound research to understand our environment and our potential impacts.

The Australian sugar industry has an international reputation for being one of the world’s most efficient and innovative producers and exporters of sugar. Australian sugarcane growers are also recognised for leading the way in sustainability.

Australian sugarcane growers have realised that a better, more productive, more sustainable future is in their hands. They have adopted a proactive approach, addressing issues before community and conservationist concern generates restrictive and overbearing government intervention.

Cane growers regard best practice farming not as a cost but as a means of improving their productivity, efficiency and sustainability. Most importantly, they see sustainability as a basis for ensuring long-term viability and the guarantee that future generations will continue to produce sugar - at a profit.

Cane growers up and down the coast have voluntarily introduced initiatives which have reduced impact on waterways, the Great Barrier Reef, coastal ecosystems and biodiversity. The good news for farmers is that sustainability does not invariably mean reduced productivity and efficiency. Whilst constantly upgrading to new technology and practices as they become available can be expensive, growers are already starting to see some of the social and productivity benefits of adopting ecologically sound practices.

Australian cane growers advocate an active, forward-looking policy on the environment. The accent is on sustainability: to balance the apparent conflict between efficiency and environmental constraints and wherever possible, to limit government involvement through responsible self-management and subscription to a voluntary best practices system.

CANEGROWERS, the body which represents around 80% of Australia’s cane growers, plays an active role in the promotion of sustainable farming practices.

20 years of fast-paced change

A major step forward in the environmental awareness of cane growers really came some twenty years ago when the industry, recognising the importance of providing a ‘best practice’ benchmark for growers, successfully worked together to collate and publish the Code of Practice for Sustainable Cane Growing in Queensland which was endorsed by the Queensland Government under the Environmental Protection Act 1994.

The code addressed key environmental issues of minimum tillage, green cane harvesting and trash blanketing, fertiliser and chemical usage, irrigation and its impacts, water quality and run-off, biodiversity, soil health, and the maintenance of riparian land and wildlife corridors. It later became the basis of a self-paced learning package known as COMPASS (Combining Profitability And Sustainability in Sugar) and off-shoot best management programs have covering everything from irrigation to chemical to soil nutrient management.

New technologies and advances are continually being discovered and growers are implementing these on farm as soon as they are able.

Smartcane BMP

BMP simply ‘packages’ all the things farmers are doing, into one place, so they can show they are using good practices on farm. By bringing everything they are already doing together, growers can compare their farm management practices with what is possible and see where improvements can be made. The cost savings through this risk assessment approach can facilitate improved returns from using better management practices which are recorded on a web-based system.

The best thing about BMP is that growers who have already completed COMPASS training, taken part in Water Use Efficiency projects or developed Land and Water Management Plans, are one step ahead and well on the way to developing their own cost saving management tool. An added bonus for cane farmers is that government regulation is much less likely when farmers can prove that they are farming responsibly.

BMP is a powerful weapon to allow farmers to work in harmony with the wider community. Some areas where environmental concerns are already being addressed include:

Chemical use

Rural industries have developed chemical collection services and a self-regulatory training and education program for users of agri-chemicals. Over 60% of Queensland cane growers have completed a voluntary one-day course and have been accredited in the use of farm chemicals. The result has been a marked increase in proficient use and a reduction in application rates and frequency. New tech has become available which allows growers to target application to where it is needed.

Green cane harvesting & trash blanketing

One of the biggest cultural changes in cane growing has been the replacement of pre-harvest firing by the adoption of green cane harvesting and trash blanketing (GCTB). By 2015, 85% of the Queensland crop was cut green compared with only 18% in 1987. North of Townsville the figure is 100%.

Adoption of GCTB has been driven by both ecological and efficiency reasons, and has yielded dividends in both environmental and productivity spheres.

Green cane harvesting has dramatically reduced the need for cane firing and its accompanying smoke issues, while the ensuing trash blanket protects soil from erosion during heavy rains and flooding. Blanketing increases the amount of organic matter in the soil, improving composition and structure. It also assists in weed control and conserving soil moisture. GCTB has also contributed to a reduction in nitrogen requirements, while at the same time elimination of burning has made harvesting schedules much more flexible.


More than 60% of all cane production is irrigated. Irrigation is costly, with water and associated pumping costs accounting for one third of all costs. Saving water is good business and environmentally responsible.

Irrigation water is monitored closely on all farms, with soil moisture readings an essential component of irrigation timing. Drip (or trickle) irrigation and low-pressure, overhead irrigation systems are being increasingly utilised, not just to save total volume but also to improve water use efficiency and productivity. Measurement of nutrient movement in irrigation run-off and ground water is widely practiced to ensure hard-won dollars are not wasted.

Tailwater dams are commonly used to ensure that water run-off after irrigation is captured and reused. The effect has been to dramatically reduce off-farm movement of nutrients, thus protecting fragile environmental systems while increasing production and reducing costs.

Riparian management

Clearance of existing vegetation is necessary to bring new land into production; however, recent recognition of both the environmental and economic importance of riparian zones (vegetation adjacent to watercourses) has changed practices of a lifetime. Trees are now being left adjacent to water ways on all new developments and trees are being replanted in already established areas, even though that replanting may reduce available area for cultivation.

Riparian zones have a major role in the filtration of nutrient run-off, stabilisation and prevention of bank erosion, and the siltation of waterways. They also play a vital part in the provision of wildlife corridors and in vermin control. Planting trees on river banks eliminates undergrowth, weeds and grasses, greatly reducing rat populations around cane fields. In turn, this dramatically reduces the need for costly chemical controls.

Acid sulfate soils

Some growers, particularly those near coastal regions in New South Wales, have encountered ‘sour soils’ - those with high acid content . These have provided generally poor levels of productivity. Exposure and drainage of acid sulphate soil has also had significant environmental ramifications, with acid run-off having the potential to affect fish breeding areas.

Recent awareness of both the economic and environmental consequences of cultivating acid soils has resulted in a more scientific approach being taken to mapping and identification of potential trouble spots, soil testing, drainage methods and neutralisation. This has produced positive environmental outcomes, while improving farm productivity.

Research & extension

The Australian sugar industry commits around $38 million a year to research, development and extension with much of this targeted at improving sustainability as well as productivity.

As a direct result of the industry’s aggressive research and development program, advances have been made in areas such as pest control, where many of our programs are world class and an example to other Australian industries. Many of the pest control programs now being developed are based on integrated pest management strategies involving biological control agents, transgenic canes, the use of chemicals and changed cultural practices.

Impressive uptake of good farming practices

These days good environmental guardianship is a normal part of running a cane growing business. Some of the good farming practices being adopted widely by growers are explained below:



Green cane harvesting and trash blanketing

Retaining stubble from one year to the next and working the crop, including harvest, without burning the trash

  • Increased soil moisture, plant available water and organic carbon percentages
  • Reduced potential for soil erosion
  • Reduced off-site leakage/loss of nutrients and pesticides
  • Increased beneficial soil micro-organisms, earthworms and other beneficial

Reduced tillage and minimum tillage systems

Soil remains relatively untouched during the preparation and growing season by less working of the field. This includes separating where cane is grown from vehicle traffic in the paddock. This is achieved by matching wheel and row spacing, reducing the impact of compaction to the same small area

  • Improved soil heath by conserving organic matter, preserving beneficial soil biota and soil fauna habitat
  • Reduced soil compaction
  • Increased rainfall infiltration and moisture holding capacity
  • Reduced crop damage and pest incursions
  • Improved fertiliser management
  • Reduced erosion risk
  • Improves nitrogen fixation by legume break crop
  • Improved weed control though reduced weed germination which lowers costs and facilitates uptake of banded/hooded herbicide application
  • Lowers costs of production

Rotation cropping and Legume break cropping

The planting of fallow land, about 15% of a farm area, on an annual rotational basis with nitrogen fixing legumes (for example soybeans, peanuts and chickpea)

  • Improved soil structure and moisture holding capacity
  • Returns nitrogen to soil and reduces need for fertilisers
  • Offers good weed control options
  • Assists to control cane pest and disease issues
  • Facilitates the uptake of minimum tillage by planting to suit controlled traffic configuration for cane
  • Delivers a better balanced soil biota
  • Fewer root pathogens
  • Increased ability to biologically fix nitrogen, improving soil condition and productivity
  • Reduce the need for irrigation through improved moisture holding capacity
  • Leads to improved profitability

Precision agriculture

Matching crop agronomy to the production potential of different parts of paddock/farm

  • Allows tailored application of inputs such as fertiliser/herbicides through use of mapping, soil tests, variable rate technology and hooded sprayers (which minimises over/under application)
  • Increases yield potential of farm by targeting input needs
  • Provides valuable yield and paddock variability data for decision making
  • Promotes improved farm record keeping
  • Facilitates uptake of better paddock design by identifying soil type variability; should result in better matching of irrigation system to soil type
  • Facilitates the uptake of better farming technology
  • Improved profitability after initial outlay

Controlled traffic

Row spacings match equipment

  • Reduced soil compaction
  • Reduced damage to the cane plant and roots and ease of harvesting lodged crops with minimal impact on cane plant stalks and stool
  • Reduction in fuel and time due to reduced overlap

Guidance systems

This tool can be utilised for controlled traffic (the tracks used by planters, tractors and harvesters are laid down with the aid of a Global Positioning system (GPS)

  • Reduced soil compaction
  • Reduced damage to the cane plant and roots and ease of harvesting lodged crops with minimal impact on cane plant stalks and stool
  • Reduction in fuel and time due to reduced overlap

Wider row spacing

Similar to controlled traffic, but with modifications to row widths and farm machinery

  • Reduces the distance travelled in carrying out operations and therefore reduces fuel use and greenhouse gases
  • Allows for more effective use of farm time because of less travel time
  • Improved soil condition and productivity by reducing soil compaction and promoting better soil health through increased micro-organisms
  • Improved soil moisture holding capacity, rainfall and irrigation capture and increased ability of crop to utilise moisture, which could reduce the need for irrigation

Multiple row cropping

  • More effective use of farm inputs, leading to cost savings per unit of farm input
  • This system has many synergies with controlled traffic, for example matching farm machinery with crop row widths

Water Recycling Systems

Retaining and recycling tail waters on farm

  • Improved efficiency of water use and irrigation infrastructure, particularly important given the rising cost of water
  • Improved habitat for birds, fish and wildlife

Establishment of efficient irrigation systems

  • Improved efficiency of water use and better targeted application of water use
  • Energy savings and savings in farm labour with the more effective use of the grower’s time
  • More effective use of farm infrastructure and improved productivity from the cane
  • Improved timing and rate of application and better use of limited water available which reduces the amount of time that the cane plant is stressed
  • Improved irrigation distribution uniformity
  • Reduction in water losses during irrigation (less deep drainage, less water loss in windy conditions)
  • Electricity and labour savings (low pressure overhead irrigation systems v winch irrigation)
  • More effective use of farm land with good designs which lead to less land lost to winch irrigation tow paths


The majority of cane growers live adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, waterways and wet tropics and have daily interface with heritage listed locations. Having these treasures in their backyard, a backyard which will become their children's and their great grandchildren, makes cane growers very aware of the environment – perhaps even more so than the vast majority of Australians, given their close physical proximity and emotional connection to the icon. 


The pace of adoption seems to accelerate more and more with each passing year. In the last decade, cane growers' commitment to adoption of good practices and environmental initiatives has been documented in a series of public environment scorecards.  The next scorecard is planned for 2015 and will contain more evidence on the industry's progress that ever before, when the much-sought after data from the highly successful Australian Government Reef Programme (formerly known as Reef Rescue) becomes available.



               UNESCO World Heritage Mission report: The media focus has been on ports and development along the coast, however the UNESCO report praised the work in improving the water quality of runoff from farms to the reef. The report recommends the continuation of the Reef Plan initiative for the overall long-term conservation of the Great Barrier Reef.

               Strategic Assessment for the GBR: Following on from the UNESCO report, the Queensland Government has committed to a strategic assessment for the Great Barrier Reef to ensure coastal development is properly planned and doesn’t compromise environmental standards. As part of the strategic assessment process, the Queensland Government will prepare a ports strategy, refine the Coastal Plan that includes the protection of areas of high ecological significance, develop Statutory Regional Plans to better manage land use issues and conduct a review of the environmental offsets required of developments.

               Second Reef Report Card: The release of the Second Reef Report Card has been delayed until late 2012 while the management practice dataset is revised for modelling.

               Scientific Consensus Statement: The Queensland Government has started planning to update the 2008 Scientific Consensus Statement in developing the next Reef Plan in 2013. This will involve preparing a short six-page summary, as well as longer synthesis documents around marine water quality, sources of pollutants, relative risks to the reef, practice effectiveness and the impacts of episodic events. 

               Paddock to Reef Program review: The Paddock to Reef program is now three years old and a review is underway by Queensland and Australian Governments. The review will identify the program’s strengths, weaknesses and gaps and develop a proposal for the second phase beyond June 2013. The review involves synthesis of existing information and engagement with program implementers and end users and will be overseen by the Independent Science Panel. The aim is to have a revised program proposal ready for the Australian and Queensland Governments to consider by the end of this year.

               Reef Rescue 2: The business case proposal document called Reef Rescue Extension has been provided to Federal Ministers Burke and Ludwig through QFF and the Reef Alliance. The proposal is seeking $230 million of funding which facilitates adoption of improved agricultural practices to protect the water quality of the Great Barrier Reef and managing impacts of coastal development through regional planning, research and a pilot grants program. The Federal Government will respond within the coming months.


CANEGROWERS Public Environment Report for the Sugarcane Industry 2008                       CANEGROWERS Public Environment Report for the Sugarcane Industry 2006                      CANEGROWERS Public Environment Report for the Sugarcane Industry 2005                  
   Environment Report
  (1.9 MB)
  Environment Report
  (3 MB)
   Environment Report
  (1.3 MB)