Project Catalyst

Regenerative farming practices to improve Great Barrier Reef water quality

October 12th, 2021


  • High nutrient levels contribute to poor reef health and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef, a leading causes of coral deterioration. 

  • A grower-led farming practice improvement project was set up by industry and non-profits in 2008 to improve farming productivity and address water quality in catchments of the Great Barrier Reef.  

  • The project has grown from 19 to 155 active growers and reduced rates of pesticide, nutrient and fine sediment pollution that impact the Reef.

Sugarcane farming has long established itself as one of the biggest agricultural industries in North Queensland, but the environmental impacts of the industry haven’t always been prioritised. Run-off from sugarcane farms can deposit nutrients in the Great Barrier Reef that have been linked to algal blooms, increased heat sensitivity in corals and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, a major threat to Reef health. 

Regenerative farming practices can reduce or eliminate levels of nutrients, pesticide and fine sediment leaving farms and their associated environmental impacts. Project Catalyst brings together a network of sugarcane farmers from across the Mackay Whitsunday, Burdekin and Wet Tropics regions to trial and implement innovative farming practices with economic and environmental benefits.

Overseen by the WWF Australia, the project is establishing best practice land and water quality management for farmers in Queensland and having a significant global impact. We sat down with Project Coordinator Ross Neivandt to talk about the innovations coming out of this mammoth collaboration effort. 


"Project Catalyst is a network of sugarcane growers who develop innovative approaches to farming that improve productivity and reduce the impact that farming has on the environment. Other growers join Project Catalyst to adopt improved farming practices to increase productivity and environmental performance at a larger scale.

As the only grower-led project of its kind in the industry, it engages sugarcane growers to innovate and adopt practice changes in a safe, supportive environment. Through the Project Catalyst network and partner base, growers can access peer-to-peer support, the services of professional extension agronomists and connect with broader resource services and communication products.

Project Catalyst is funded and supported by The Coca-Cola Foundation, WWF-Australia, The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, private donors and  sugarcane farmers. As a Principal Environmental Scientist and Project Coordinator I help organise the project’s operations, manage stakeholder engagement and work to identify and foster future opportunities through strategy development and networking."


"Sugarcane farms can be sources of nutrients, pesticides and fine sediment as a consequence of both traditional and modern farming systems. Water run-off from farms can carry these pollutants into the Great Barrier Reef where they cause algal blooms that destroy coral cover. Improved farming practices can reduce the amount of these pollutants that leave the farm and potentially impact the Great Barrier Reef.

Innovation that creates improved farming methods can deliver environmental and financial benefits. Farming practices that balance inputs with productivity help us move away from the 'take-make-waste' model and towards regenerative, circular approaches. These include — whole of farm nutrient and pesticide management and regenerative farming strategies that improve efficiency while reducing waste and unnecessary environmental impacts.

Project Catalyst is about reducing inputs where possible and efficient resource utilisation. An example is improving soil health through natural processes such as fallow cover cropping, which regenerates soil health between plantings. This breakaway from traditional sugarcane mono-cultural methods may also reduce the reliance on artificial fertilisers and, in some cases, pesticides."


"Project Catalyst is the only grower-led network of practice initiative — a group of dispersed people working together to improve a shared practice — that provides growers with support to both innovate and adopt practice change for productivity and environmental performance gains. The project is built on the innovation skill and entrepreneurial mindset of growers to create innovative farming solutions, with the trust and dedication of independently sourced funders, backers and partners. 

One example of a change implemented through the project is fallow cover cropping. In the past, it was normal to leave fallow ground bare or only covered by leaf trash before planting  sugarcane for the following season. Project Catalyst trialled the planting of legume and mixed species crops in these fallows which were found to improve soil health, soil structure, trace elements and natural nitrogen levels prior to replanting sugarcane. Fallow cover crops also provide ground cover that reduces erosion, breaks up compacted soils, improves water infiltration and drainage, suppresses weeds and allows natural biota such as beneficial nematodes to build up naturally.

Methods like this allow farmers to use resources more efficiently and reduce the amount of nutrients, pesticide and fine sediment that can leave the farm and the associated environmental impacts on natural waterways or the Great Barrier Reef.

The main barriers to change in the agriculture sector are limited access to knowledge, experienced guidance and peer-to-peer learning, a lack of support to try new ideas and limited funding or incentives to make positive change. Project Catalyst addresses this by connecting growers to resources, support networks and each other. The most effective strategy for getting growers onboard is leading by example and trading on the project’s reputation and track record."


"Project metrics are tracked with the Australian Government's Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program, which predicts reductions in Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (DIN), fine sediment and pesticide pollution that impact the Great Barrier Reef. In 2020, Project Catalyst's 155 growers, farming 42,000 hectares of land, improved the quality of water contributed to the Great Barrier Reef by:

  • Reducing the amount of DIN leaving farms by 39 tonnes

  • Reducing fine sediment by 6,751 tonnes 

  • And reducing pesticides by 7,628 grams. 

Project Catalyst is a significant contributor to improving water quality on a global scale, creating pathways for sugarcane growers to improve on-farm performance, build resilience, enhance productivity and create enduring environmental benefits on and off farm. We have seen continued expansion and uptake of the program and knowledge sharing that supports improvements in other farming systems throughout Australia. In March 2021, the program that began in 2008 with 19 growers, had grown to 155 active growers and the annual Forum event continued to attract 150-plus participants from across Queensland. 

Over the last two years, funding partners have steered the project towards supporting the broader adoption of proven best practices as a priority, with significantly less investment made into pure innovation research. As we continue to seek funding for the discovery and development of the next wave of farming best practices, the importance of grower-led innovation to enable future productivity and environmental improvements cannot be understated."

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