Water quality regulations – staying afloat

What you need to know

The decline in water quality in catchments and sub-catchments is a problem attracting government and community interest across Australia and the world.

Water quality on the Great Barrier Reef has been an especially hot topic for some years now but the Queensland Government’s recent introduction of environmental protection legislation has lifted the controversy to a new level in some industries.

ABGC Strategy Manager Michelle McKinlay explains what’s going on, what the ABGC is doing and how the regulations may impact growers in north Queensland.

Why regulations?

The Queensland Government is acting on advice from an independent taskforce, that while significant improvements in water quality had been achieved in recent years, they are not enough to stop the overall decline in the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Responding to this, the Queensland Government has decided to regulate the practices of a number of industries including sewerage treatment, waste disposal, certain mining and agriculture.

To regulate the agriculture industry, the Queensland government is proposing a number of minimum standards for each impacted industry – cane, grazing and now bananas. The standards cover nitrogen and phosphorous application, erosion and sediment control, record keeping, and farm design standards for new cropping developments. Cane and grazing have had minimum standards for some years but the way they have been policed has differed under the last few governments. While reef regulation is new territory for banana growers, farming at best management practice standards is not. The industry has a good track record of farming responsibly and this history will make the transition to regulation easier.

What is the ABGC doing?

The ABGC has been in discussions with the government for the past two years and negotiations continue as this magazine goes to print. We have been educating policy makers so that they understand banana production to make sure that if there has to be regulations, they can be practically implemented and won’t reduce productivity or profitability. There has been good progress that will hopefully continue as we focus sharply on a few remaining points of contention.

Read the ABGC’s submission to the Queensland Government at www.abgc.org.au

The ABGC also appeared at a public hearing in North Queensland to represent the interests of banana growers.

Concerns with a cap

One of the remaining contentious issues is the government’s proposal to set an upper limit (or cap) on the amount of nitrogen that can be applied to plant and ratoon crops using an ‘adjustment’ method. For a plant crop, the government wants to limit the amount of nitrogen that can be applied to 250kg N/hectare/year. For a ratoon crop, the government wants to set a limit at 350kg N/hectare/year. For both plant and ratoon crops, the grower could then add another 50kg N/hectare/year if there are soil and leaf test results that demonstrate the need for additional nutrients. This means there is an immoveable cap of 300kg N/hectare/year for a plant crop and 400kg N/hectare/year for each ratoon.

The ABGC has argued strongly that the results from the single research trial published in 2002 simply do not provide enough evidence to justify this cap.

Last year the government agreed to fund a four-year project to give growers more information about the relationship between production (particularly bunch weight and finger size) and nitrogen rates.

With this evidence likely to be available in a few years, the ABGC is arguing that the Queensland Government must abandon any plans to introduce a hard cap until there are results from this research.

Growers should be able to apply the amount of nutrients required by the plant when test results show they are needed. This reduces the grower’s risk of a negative impact on production and profitability.

Farming on land that hasn’t been cropped 

The other main issue of contention is the environmental requirements that will apply to new farms (30+ hectares) that are established on land without a ‘cropping history’. A cropping history is demonstrated where the land has been used three out of the last ten years (with one of those years being in the last five years). These farms will require a site-specific land assessment that will cost growers time and money. Discussions on this point continue. 

There’s time to plan


While some of the regulations will start when the legislation is passed, others – such as the minimum practice standards – will not commence before July 2020. The good news in all of this is that growers have time to consider the way they are farming, calculate their nitrogen and phosphorus rates (if they don’t already know) and get some help to work out what they need to do so that they comply with the regulations. Many of the minimum standards align well with the Banana BMP Guidelines and a number of the privately accredited environmental schemes. Growers who are farming at or beyond the BMP industry standards will find the regulations have little impact on them. 

Get ‘Reg Ready’

The ABGC extension team is keen to help growers to use the BMP to do their own assessment of their farming practices and then focus on making the necessary improvements. The team will help you every step of the way. There is also a new round of grants available to banana growers that will help to reduce the costs of improvements for some growers.

So do yourself a favour and get your farm ‘reg ready’. Check out the proposed minimum standards on the ABCG website and see how your farm measures up. And if you are not sure, give the ABGC extension team a call and they will help. The number for Rob Mayers is 40152797.