FARMERS have been left stunned after Australia's peak Great Barrier Reef research organisation admitted it could not say whether the overall amount of coral has increased or decreased in the past 15 years.
The seemingly fundamental question to the Australian Institute of Marine Science about the health of the world's largest coral reef system underscored the frustration of farmers attending a Senate hearing into the Palaszczuk government's controversial reef regulations in Brisbane this week.
The admission came after repeated questioning by senators Susan McDonald (LNP), Gerard Rennick (LNP) and Malcolm Roberts (PHON), who challenged representatives from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University's TropWATER research organisation.
Adding to the confusion was AIMS chief executive officer Dr Paul Hardisty's claim that the organisation had not contributed to the Palaszczuk government's regulations, which farmers say threaten their livelihoods, without being able to demonstrate improvements to reef health.
That's despite a so-called 2017 consensus statement on land use impacts of the reef being consistently held up as a basis for the Palaszczuk government's new legislation.
While climate change and extreme weather were clearly identified as the reef's greatest threats, farmers continue to claim they have been made the scapegoats for the overall health of the 2300km reef on the single issue of water quality.
Canegrowers chairman Paul Schembri told the inquiry farmers were committed to efforts to understand and, where necessary, better manage the interactions between farming and water quality in the catchment.
"But the Queensland government's escalation last year of its regulation on farming in reef catchment areas has exposed significant deficiencies in the way governments develop policies," Mr Schembri said.
"Fundamental to our concern is that the cane industry has been regulated for 10 years, but it is only the farmers' own efforts that is driving any meaningful change."
Canegrowers' four key recommendations were:
- Removing the regulatory burden on growers and adopting long-term support for on-farm innovation.
- Restoring growers' confidence in policy through a review of the way the science used.
- Ensuring water quality targets are credible and realistic.
- Developing trustworthy methods for evaluating improvements in farm practices and water quality.
Canegrowers analysis shows the economy would suffer a $1.3 billion hit over 10 years if growers were forced to reduce farm nitrogen use by 30 per cent.
AgForce reef taskforce chairman Alex Stubbs said despite all their efforts, farmers had been viciously and unfairly persecuted by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science.
Mr Stubbs said primary producers were emotionally exhausted after years of providing scientifically robust submissions grounded in truth to reef protection forums without any of it being incorporated into legislation.
"It's a bureaucratic and fundamentally flawed regime that won't actually make any difference to reef health," he said.
"This really is our last chance to get reef science right and to support a $15 billion industry that is a vital part of strong regional communities."