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The Control of Nutrient Run-Off from Agricultural Areas: Insights into Governance from Australia’s Sugarcane Industry and the Great Barrier Reef

  • Evan Hamman (a1) and Felicity Deane (a2)


Many parts of the world rely on nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to improve farming production and increase yields. There are significant food security as well as socio-economic issues at stake. However, it is also clear that fertilizer loads are particularly damaging to aquatic environments, including lakes, rivers, coral reefs, and wetlands. This article explores governance approaches to fertilizer practices that impact on aquatic environments (eutrophication) by examining a case study of the Great Barrier Reef. Governance involves any and all forms of state and non-state control over a given set of issues. It can include, but is not limited to, rule-based approaches like regulation, although it can also involve market-driven measures like nutrient trading schemes, government grants and other financial incentives. So, which approach to governance works best to combat this particular policy question? What other insights into the design of effective regulation and governance can be gathered? In this article, the authors make three broad arguments for change: firstly, it is crucial that regulation features within government strategies; secondly, there must be a rigorous systematic evaluation of the strategies to ensure that the desired behavioural change is achieved along with the desired outcomes; thirdly, and most importantly, the strategies and the evaluation methods must be appropriate for the culture of the industry they are designed to regulate.



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This article is based on research undertaken as a result of funding through the Institute of Future Environments, QUT Catapult programme. The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers who made helpful suggestions about how this article might be improved. The authors would also like to acknowledge the research services of Ilana Bolingford.



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1 Ryther, J.H. & Dunstan, W.M., ‘Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Eutrophication in the Coastal Marine Environment’ (1971) 171(3975) Science, pp. 10081013 .

2 Smith, V.H., Tilman, G.D. & Nekolac, J.C., ‘Eutrophication: Impacts of Excess Nutrient Inputs on Freshwater, Marine, and Terrestrial Ecosystems’ (1999) 100(1–3) Environmental Pollution, pp. 179196 .

3 Sobota, D.J., Compton, J.E. & Harrison, J.A, ‘Reactive Nitrogen Inputs to US Lands and Waterways: How Certain Are We about Sources and Fluxes?’ (2013) (11)(2) Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, pp. 8290 .

4 Nakagawa, K. et al., ‘Spatial Trends of Nitrate Pollution and Groundwater Chemistry in Shimabara, Nagasaki, Japan’ (2016) 75(3) Environmental Earth Sciences, pp. 117 .

5 M. Duhon, H. McDonald & S. Kerr, ‘Nitrogen Trading in Lake Taupo: An Analysis and Evaluation of an Innovative Water Management Policy’, Motu Working Paper 15-07, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, June 2015, available at:

6 Sharpley, A. & Wang, X., ‘Managing Agricultural Phosphorus for Water Quality: Lessons from the USA and China’ (2014) 26(9) Journal of Environmental Sciences, pp. 17701782 .

7 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (Cth), Pt V, in particular, s. 30.

8 The authority is called the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It was established at the same time as the Marine Park and under the same legislation: ibid.

9 Deloitte Access Economics, At What Price? The Economic, Social and Icon Value of the Great Barrier Reef (Deloitte Tohmatsu Ltd, 2017), available at: (the report’s quoted figure is AUD (Australian dollars) 56 billion).

10 Ibid.

11 E. Hamman, ‘The Role of Non-State Actors in Promoting Compliance with the World Heritage Convention: An Empirical Study of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef’ (PhD thesis submitted to Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Qld (Australia), 2017), Ch. 1, available at:

12 Queensland has 15 ports along its coastline. Five of these are known as ‘priority port areas’ – Gladstone, Abbot Point, Townsville, Hay Point/Mackay – and are heavily used for the export of agricultural goods and fossil fuels.

13 Schaffelke, B. et al., Scientific Consensus Statement 2017. A Synthesis of the Science of Land-based Water Quality Impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, Chapter 1: The Condition of Coastal and Marine Ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef and Their Responses to Water Quality and Disturbances (State of Queensland, 2017), pp. 2526 , available at:

14 Ryther, &Dunstan, , n. 1 above.

15 Hecky, R.E. & Kilham, P., ‘Nutrient Limitation of Phytoplankton in Freshwater and Marine Environments: A Review of Recent Evidence on the Effects of Enrichment’ (1988) 33(4) Limnology and Oceanography, pp. 796822 .

16 Valiela, I. et al., ‘Transport of Groundwater-Borne Nutrients from Watersheds and Their Effects on Coastal Waters’ (1990) 10(3) Biogeochemistry, pp. 177197 ; Vitousek, P.M. & Howarth, R.W., ‘Nitrogen Limitation on Land and in the Sea – How Can it Occur?’ (1991) 13(2) Biogeochemistry, pp. 87115 ; Smith, Tilman & Nekolac, n. 2 above.

17 Slomp, C.P. & Cappellen, P.V., ‘Nutrient Inputs to the Coastal Ocean through Submarine Groundwater Discharge: Controls and Potential Impact’ (2004) 295(1) Journal of Hydrology, pp. 6486 .

18 Smith, Tilman & Nekolac, n. 2 above.

19 Ibid.

20 Moore, C.R., ‘Queensland Sugar Industry from 1860 to 1900’, in B.J. Dalton (ed.), Lectures on North Queensland History (James Cook University, 1974), pp. 29–48, available at:

21 Queensland Government, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, ‘Enhancing Regulations to Ensure Clean Water for a Healthy Great Barrier Reef and a Prosperous Queensland’, Discussion Paper, Mar. 2017, p. 8, available at:

22 Queensland Government, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, ‘Broadening and Enhancing Reef Protection Regulations: Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement’, Sept. 2017, p. 17, available at:

23 Queensland Government, Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, ‘Great Barrier Reef Coastal Zone Strategic Assessment 2013: Strategic Assessment Report’, Nov. 2013, p. 34, available at: (Queensland Government, Strategic Assessment 2013).

24 Westcott, M., Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009 (Qld): Regulating Sugar Cane Growing and Cattle Grazing in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment Area (Queensland Parliamentary Library, 2009), p. 4 , available at:

25 For a discussion of Crown Leases in Queensland, see Wallace, A., Weir, M. & McCrimmon, L., Real Property Law in Queensland (Thomson Reuters, 2015), pp. 2640 .

26 Australian Government, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, ‘Sugar’, updated 15 Sept. 2017, available at:

27 Parliament of Australia, The Senate, Rural and Regional Affairs References Committee, Current and Future Arrangements for the Marketing of Australian Sugar (Commonwealth of Australia, 2015).

28 Waterhouse, J. et al., 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement: Land Use Impacts on Great Barrier Reef Water Quality and Ecosystem Condition (Queensland Government, 2017), p. 15 , available at:

29 Hildebrand, C., 2002 Independent Assessment of the Sugar Industry (Australian Government, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, 2002).

30 Ibid.

31 Mackintosh, D., ‘Sugar Milling’, in M. Hogarth & P. Allsopp (eds), Manual of Canegrowing (Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations, 2000), pp. 369378 .

32 Hildebrand, n. 29 above.

33 Hamman, n. 11 above, p. 135.

34 State of Queensland and Commonwealth of Australia, Reef Water Quality Protection Plan: For Catchments Adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet, 2003) (Reef Plan), available at:

35 Ibid., p. 4.

36 State of Queensland, Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2009: For the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and Adjacent Catchments (Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat, 2009), p. 8 , available at:

37 Ibid., p. 3.

38 Ibid., p. 5.

39 Ibid., p. 20.

40 Ibid., p. 21.

41 Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld), s. 75.

42 State of Queensland, Queensland Audit Office, ‘Managing Water Quality in Great Barrier Reef Catchments’, Report 20: 2014–15, available at: In particular the Environmental Protection Act 1994 outlines the fertilizer application requirements and creates an offence of applying more than ‘the optimum amount’ of nitrogen and phosphorus to soil on the property: Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld), Ch. 4A, ss. 78, 80. Further the Act specifies that fertilizer containing nitrogen or phosphorus cannot be applied if it would cause more than this optimum amount to be applied to the soil: ibid, s. 82.

43 Queensland Government, Strategic Assessment 2013, n. 23 above, p. 136.

44 Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld), s. 78. These figures are the USD equivalent of AUD 10,000 and 12,615 respectively.

45 Westcott, n. 24 above, p. 1.

46 Canegrowers Association, ‘Smartcane BMP Home’, 2016, available at:

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Office of the Great Barrier Reef, ‘Broadening and Enhancing Reef Protection Regulations: Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement’, Sept. 2017, Executive Summary, p. 4, available at: At the time of writing a second round of consultation on the proposed regulations had begun.

51 Ibid.

52 Brodie, J. & Pearson, R.G., ‘Ecosystem Health of the Great Barrier Reef: Time for Effective Management Action based on Evidence’ (2016) 183(Part B), Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, pp. 438451 .

53 For other arguments, see ibid.

54 Waterhouse et al., n. 28 above, p. 16.

55 Ibid., p. 14.

56 Martin, P., Kennedy, A. & Williams, J., ‘Effective Law for Rural Environmental Governance: Meta‑Governance Reform and Farm Stewardship’, in R. Levy et al., (eds), New Directions for Law in Australia: Essays in Contemporary Law Reform (ANU Press, 2017), pp. 263271 , at 264, available at:

57 Australian Government, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, ‘Strategic Assessment and 25-Year Management Plan’, 2017, available at:

58 Hamman, n. 11 above.

59 State of Queensland, ‘Chapter 10: Recommended Changes and Forward Commitments’, in Great Barrier Reef Coastal Zone Strategic Assessment Report, p. 332, available at:

60 State of Queensland, ‘Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015, Reef Water Quality Protection Plan’, 2016, available at:

61 Australian Government, The Australian Government Guide to Regulation (Commonwealth of Australia, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2014), available at:

62 Ayres, I. & Braithwaite, J., ‘Tripartism: Regulatory Capture and Empowerment’ (1991) 16(3) Law and Social Inquiry, pp. 435496 . On responsive regulation and the ‘tit for tat’ relationship between the regulator and the industry, see Ayres, I. & Braithwaite, J., Responsive Regulation: Transcending the Deregulation Debate (Oxford University Press, 1992).

63 Gunningham, N., Grabosky, P.N. & Sinclair, D., Smart Regulation: Designing Environmental Policy (Clarendon Press, 1998); see also Gunningham’s publications more generally.

64 Grabosky, P., ‘Beyond the Regulatory State’ (1994) 27(2) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, pp. 192197 ; and Grabosky, P., ‘Beyond Responsive Regulation: The Expanding Role of Non-State Actors in the Regulatory Process’ (2013) 7(1) Regulation & Governance, pp. 114123 .

65 Black, J. & Baldwin, R., ‘Really Responsive Risk-Based Regulation’ (2010) 32(2) Law and Policy, pp. 181213 .

66 Reef Plan, n. 34 above, p. 21.

67 Brodie & Pearson, n. 52 above.

68 Queensland Government, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, n. 22 above.

69 Queensland Audit Office, n. 42 above.

70 Coggan, A. et al., ‘Private Transaction Costs of Participation in Water Quality Improvement Programs for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef: Extent, Causes and Policy Implications’ (2015) 59(4) Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, pp. 499517 .

71 Martin, Kennedy & Williams, n. 56 above, pp. 269–70.

72 Queensland Government, Strategic Assessment 2013, n. 23 above, p. 35.

73 On the topic of the dispute between Queensland industry, the Australian government and Singaporean-based Wilmar Sugar, see C. Packham, ‘Australian Government Intervenes in Wilmar Sugar Row’, Reuters World News, 30 Mar. 2017, available at:

74 Pickering, J.A. et al., ‘Applying Behavioural Science to the Queensland Sugar Cane Industry and Its Relationship to the Great Barrier Reef (2017) 13(2) Rural Extension and Innovation Systems Journal, pp. 110 .

75 Ibid., p. 5.

76 Ibid., p. 9.

77 Ibid.

78 Australian Cane Farmers, ‘Can Families Pay Price of Contract Dispute’, 1 Feb. 2017, available at:

79 S. Baker, ‘Government Extends Reef Rescue Program’, ABC, 25 Apr. 2013, available at:

80 Martin, Kennedy & Williams, n. 56 above, p. 267.

81 Parliament of Australia, ‘Current and Future Arrangements for the Marketing of Australian Sugar’, Parliamentary Report, Ch. 3, para. 3.10, available at:

82 Sugar Research Australia, ‘SRA Performance Report 2015/16: Executive Summary’, available at:

83 This equates to approximately AUD 14,900: Sugar Research Australia, ibid.

84 Coggan, et al., n. 70 above, p. 501.

85 Superior extension models are generally the result of appropriate personnel and dedicated resources. Superiority is often demonstrated through grower engagement with these extension services.

86 van Grieken, M.E. et al., ‘Integrating Economic Drivers of Social Change into Agricultural Water Quality Improvement Strategies’ (2013) 180 Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, pp. 166175 .

87 Office of the Great Barrier Reef, n. 50 above.

88 Borck, J. & Coglianese, C., ‘Beyond Compliance: Explaining Business Participation in Voluntary Environmental Programs’, in C. Parker & V.L. Nielsen (eds), Explaining Compliance: Business Responses to Regulation (Edward Elgar, 2011), pp. 139169 . These authors suggest that social pressures can in some instances lead to voluntary compliance with environmental programmes.

89 Thaler, R.H. & Sunstein, C.R., Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (Penguin Books Ltd, 2008), p. 68 .

90 Gunningham, N. & Sinclair, D., Leaders and Laggards: Next-Generation Environmental Regulation (Greenleaf, 2002), p. 22 .

91 Davidson, N.C., ‘How Much Wetland Has the World Lost? Long-Term and Recent Trends in Global Wetland Area’ (2014) 65(10) Marine and Freshwater Research, pp. 934941 .

92 Brodie & Pearson, n. 52 above, p. 447.

93 Office of the Great Barrier Reef, n. 50 above.

94 State of Queensland, ‘Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan: Report Cards’, updated 27 Oct. 2017, available at:

95 Queensland Government, ‘Great Barrier Reef Strategic Assessment Reports’, available at:

96 Pickering et al., n. 74 above.

This article is based on research undertaken as a result of funding through the Institute of Future Environments, QUT Catapult programme. The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers who made helpful suggestions about how this article might be improved. The authors would also like to acknowledge the research services of Ilana Bolingford.



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