A range of projects focussed on changing fertilizer application rates and land use are underway in the Queensland cane industry. Projects aim to improve water quality in the Great Barrier Reef catchment to assist the ecosystem for decades to come.

Griffith Business School researchers have combined with Griffith University School of Environment and Science researchers to examine and evaluate a range of projects seeking to engage Queensland cane farmers. The research team are working to find evaluation approaches that can be applied to assess cost-effectiveness of different project approaches and combine this understanding with growers’ perceptions and experiences of projects. The key focus of this work is to understand which types of projects have been the most effective at reducing nitrogen run-off in waterways.


Prof. Rundle-Thiele and Assoc. Prof. Jim Smart

This interdisciplinary project has two sides to the evaluation, behaviour change (social science) and cost-effectiveness analyses – and is led by Professor Sharyn Rundle-Thiele, Director of Social Marketing @ Griffith. Professor Rundle-Thiele and Dr. Patricia David are leading the behaviour change work, and Associate Professor Jim Smart from Australian Rivers Institute is leading the cost-effectiveness analyses. All are highly-experienced leaders who are assisted by Carina Roemer, Renata Anibaldi and Dr. Morgan Sterling Saletta from Social Marketing @ Griffith and Dr. Syezlin (Lin) Hasan from the Australian Rivers Institute.


Great Barrier Reef, image: LuxuryLodgesofAustralia

Project 4.12 ‘Measuring cost-effectiveness and identifying key barriers and enablers of lasting practice change in the cane industry’ – has just passed the halfway point. This three-year project, funded by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP) – Tropical Water Quality (TWQ) Hub, aimed to examine a range of projects that addressed nitrogen reduction, pesticide reduction and land use in cane farming. Applying cost-effectiveness and social science methods, NESP TWQ Hub Project 4.12 aims to estimate and compare cost-effectiveness of different project approaches and it seeks to identify the factors that enable or prevent practice change.

“The project focusses on trying to understand the factors that contribute to and also prevent behaviour change from actually occurring. So that requires multiple pieces of work to try and understand how behaviour change can be facilitated, supported and maintained over time,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

“For the social science part of the study we have utilised mixed methods including surveys, in-depth interviews, systems methods (Creating Collective Solutions), a systematic literature review and more.”

“During this research it has become apparent that rather than taking a project focus, evaluations need to centre on ‘growers’. Rather than considering project by project we need to learn more about how growers are involved in the range of projects underway to learn more about what works, when, where and for who.”

“A project perspective restricts understanding within projects and fails to account for the many projects a single grower is asked to be involved in. Moving forward we want to focus our effort at a regional level and learn more about what growers experience across the range of projects.”

“We need to understand more about which projects are actually contributing or are not contributing to behavioural change,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

Queensland Sugarcane

Queensland Sugarcane, image: JackandNan

Investments have been made across a range of programs to address the issue of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) run-off from fertilizers in waterways and there is now a sufficient number of projects that have been implemented in Queensland that have sufficient data to conduct cost-effectiveness analyses.

“The cost-effectiveness analyses is complementary to what Professor Rundle-Thiele and her colleagues are doing,” said Associate Professor Smart.

“The cost-effectiveness side of it was driven by both the Federal Government and the Queensland State Government. Because both governments have put substantial amounts of money into these programs to try and incentivise or subsidise changes in management practice, and in land use change, that would lead to improvements in water quality.”

“The two questions that I think led them to commissioning this project, was looking across different programs, are there differences in the cost-effectiveness of different approaches?”

“How much change in nitrogen reduction are we getting relative to how much money it is costing to operate the program? Which is one thing.”

“But then the longer-term question is – what are the behavioural changes that are engendered by those programs – will they persist or are they going to stop once the money that funds the program stops?” Associate Professor Smart asked.

“So it’s that broad question really that the project as a whole is dealing with and that’s why it has these two strands.”


Great Barrier Reef, image: LuxuryLodgesofAustralia

The researchers have been examining cane projects that are currently underway or have previously been completed in different catchment areas in North Queensland from Mackay up to the Wet Tropics in Cairns.

“The extent of work we have got to do to untangle which projects are leading to behaviour change is significant, so we have a large team working on this project,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

“Dr. Patricia David worked full-time as a Research Fellow in Year 1 of the NESP TWQ Hub Project 4.12. Patricia was awarded a Griffith University post-doctoral fellowship for two years to extend the time commitment that she can give to this project.”

“Associate Professor Smart is supported by Dr. Syezlin (Lin) Hasan and in our team, we have Carina, Renata and Morgan supporting the behaviour change work.”


Burdekin River Queensland, image: Griffith ARI

Nitrogen run-off in cane farms is one aspect of the broader land management issues facing Australian farmers that includes pesticide run-off and sediment stressors created from grazing lands, all of which contribute to impacting water quality in river systems and waterways.

“We have learned there is an incredible amount of projects underway that are focussed on reducing fertilizer use and changing land use,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

“Every day we learn of more people working on projects aimed at changing farming practices – to even start to get a handle on which projects cross which regions and who they’re funded by takes time.”

“Most projects focus on nitrogen fertilizer application rates and examining when, where and how reductions in nitrogen application occur is a key area of interest.”


Queensland Sugarcane

For the cane growers, livelihoods are on the line. Concerns about reducing fertilizer and pesticide inputs is clear and growers need to believe reductions can be made without any change to output and productivity. Stopping nitrogen-based fertilizers completely or miscalculating application rates could impact crop yields, which could send growers out of business.

“Our data clearly shows that growers don’t want nitrogen and pesticides to be running off their land – given lost chemicals equate to money that could have been saved,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

“We conducted one workshop in 2019 involving industry stakeholders who came together to discuss barriers to change. Within this workshop growers were bought into a conversation with various government departments, extension support officers, agronomists, chemical resellers and more.”

“We applied an action mapping process that allowed participating stakeholders to express their views. Viewpoints varied and while some stakeholders believe that farmers ‘Fail to accept that their individual minor contribution to the losses matter’, farmers felt frustrated at other stakeholders stating there is a ‘Failure to get other people to understand as farmers we don’t want pesticide losses from our farms’.”

“By working together stakeholders can work to a common purpose of helping farmers to save money by avoiding pesticide and nutrient over-application on farms, which in turn will ensure avoidance of, or a reduction in, pesticide exceedances in waterways.”

“The workshop made it clear that, ‘There is a lot of mistrust in science, there is poor advice, and there are mixed signals being sent by different stakeholders’,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

“For growers, fertilizers and pesticides are insurance or risk mitigation and these are applied based on experience to ensure a cane plant will grow over a five year cycle. Growers won’t take a risk unless there is certainty in the behavioural ask.”

“We have been lucky enough to be involved in projects where trust in the science has been built through grower involvement in water quality monitoring. Over the life of one project we have witnessed first-hand a willingness to work together to find solutions – there is hope.”


Burdekin River Queensland, image: Wikipedia

Griffith researchers have identified the challenge for all cane industry stakeholders is balancing competing agendas and coming to a consensus on the best solutions.

“This is the beauty of some of the work we have been asked to examine. Some projects feature growers working with other stakeholders including government to deliver positive changes,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

“Chemical resellers, growers, the Queensland Government, agronomists and extension support services are prepared to get into one room and focus on what can be done. We are seeing proactive solutions-focussed work.”

“By bringing different stakeholders together and applying a consensus process to identify standout problems we can reach a shared understanding. Once we know what the key challenges are stakeholders can work together to deliver measurable changes.”

There is no doubt times are tough for many cane growers and the sentiment in the industry experienced by Griffith researchers shows negativity, pressure and a loss of hope that farmers will be able to pass their farms down to the next generation. But there is a strong belief this research can assist to pinpoint and highlight what is working for all stakeholders.

“At heart all growers want to actually farm land and produce good crops, and many would still love to see a world where passing their land and business onto their sons and daughters was a viable economic and lifestyle alternative,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

“There is a lot of pressure in terms of compliance and retooling and costs that make implementing many solutions challenging. Growers have to foresee that an investment in changing practice or land use can improve their profitability.”

“When you spend some time talking with people you realise how many are working second jobs to have stable incomes. You quickly learn these guys are working pretty bloody hard.”

“Cost-effectiveness assessments involve a complex expenditure investigation that follows cane program expenditures from the top-tier funding organisations down multiple levels to the implementing organisations and bodies, then down to the farm service providers,” said Associate Professor Smart.

“Money is flowing down to the farm level through the agronomy advice. And it might require the growers to make some investments themselves to make some of the changes on-ground.”

“So there are several levels at which these expenditures are being incurred. And trying to get reliable data on exactly what is being spent down that chain is actually quite difficult.”

The research completed to date makes it clear that responsibility needs to be shared by all stakeholders and the efforts of growers, industry and projects seeking to support practice change should be monitored and measured for ongoing progress.

“While our project is a good step forward, access to data and an unwillingness to cooperate show us there is a lack of transparency,” said Professor Rundle-Thiele.

“A much stronger moving forward emphasis on shared responsibility has got to be brought into the equation here. There is a significant service provision industry supporting growers and we need to understand more about what is working, when, where and why.”

“We need to measure the outcomes for all activities. Growers need to be able to rate the service delivered by agronomists and extension support, and measurable change resulting from these services needs to be communicated to all stakeholders.”

“We are trying to make some serious progress from both the behaviour change side and the cost-effectiveness side. And this is not the only project that Associate Professor Smart looks at in terms of cost-effectiveness.”

“In clear cases of over-application, there is no doubt that application rates of fertilizer and pesticide need to come down – but in the same vein we have to be ready to report on all services provided to learn more about what really works.”

“What are all stakeholders doing to give people clear data that they can trust to act on?” Professor Rundle-Thiele asked.

Professor Rundle-Thiele explained that moving forward more direct grower involvement is needed in project design, program planning and evaluation. Projects need to be developed with growers – to actually figure out what else needs to happen.”

“We know that what gets measured gets done. The time has come to monitor activities and inputs and importantly link any of these to measurable outcomes to understand how water quality (impact) can be achieved.”

To learn more about behaviour change in the cane industry for nitrogen reduction and the cost-effectiveness analyses of cane projects, please contact Professor Sharyn Rundle-Thiele or Associate Professor Jim Smart.
Feature Image: Fitzroy River Queensland, image: KeystoneInsurance

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‘Farmer ‘nitrogen market’ could reduce runoff impact on Great Barrier Reef’