“The perception was that we were destroying the reef almost intentionally,” Deguara recalls. “And that’s the point I didn’t like.”
Heavy rains washed fertilisers and pesticides off sugarcane farms and into waterways leading to the world’s largest coral reef system, located off the coast of Queensland.
Through Project Catalyst, a collaboration among Coca-Cola, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), natural resource management groups Reef Catchments, Terrain, NQ Dry Tropics and the Australian government, Deguara and a group of fellow landholders are developing and testing progressive farming practices to improve the quality of the water runoff.
“Project Catalyst has allowed us to jump in, boots and all,” Deguara said. “It has brought together a group of like-minded people so we can share our ideas and move forward quickly.”
Launched in 2009, the five-year partnership fast-tracks innovative concepts by providing funding, technical expertise and other resources to landholders who have developed breakthrough ideas, but lack the resources to develop and implement them.
“Farmers around the world are adopting innovative practices, but they shoulder a big burden by using their own money and taking their own risks,” said Will Higham, land and operations manager at Reef Catchments. “Project Catalyst provides a safety net for the innovative farmers willing to trial practices by providing the support of experts such as economists and agronomists.”
Communication is a key part of the initiative; newsletters and a dedicated website promote innovations, enabling growers to share best practices and insights.
Michelle Allen, who manages Project Catalyst for Coca-Cola Australia, says one of the most powerful and distinctive aspects of the program is the fact that it’s grower-led.
“We provide financial support for the growers to speed adoption of these practices, but they are the ones coming up with the ideas,” she said. “And that’s very special.”
Rob Cairns, sustainable agriculture program manager for WWF Australia, agrees. “People like Gerry inspire me because there is no market driver for him to get involved in this,” he explains. “There is no premium for his product at the end of the day. He does it because he thinks it’s good for his farm, his family and the environment.”
Coca-Cola became a partner in the project because Catalyst aligns with key components of its long-term sustainability strategy (specifically, the focus areas of water stewardship, sustainable agriculture and community partnership). Project Catalyst is the first extension in South Pacific of Coca-Cola’s global partnership with WWF.
Setting New Standards for Sustainable Agriculture
In addition to water quality improvements, cutting-edge techniques introduced by Project Catalyst farmers focus on soil health, production efficiency, precision planning, irrigation and storm water management.
Since its launch, Project Catalyst has expanded from 19 growers and 4,800 hectares of farmland to 78 growers and more than 101,725 hectares. The project has improved the quality of more than 100 billion liters of runoff water by reducing the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, herbicide and other pollutants flowing into the Great Barrier Reef. Participating farmers also have benefited from higher profits.
“As we demonstrate what we are doing works, more farmers will adopt those principles, which will benefit the region as a whole,” Deguara said. “If we are going to survive in the long term, we need to think bigger and make our farms more viable for future generations.”
All partners believe the project, which has been recognized with several sustainability awards in Australia, has the potential to reach other sugarcane-producing areas of the world.
“The lessons we’re learning here are applicable globally,” Cairns concludes. “And they’ve never been done before… there has been no dress rehearsal. These growers, together with us and with Coca-Cola, are cracking the problem together.”