Alison Rourke in Sydney
Australia‘s Great Barrier Reef will suffer damage as a result of a decision to allow farmers in far north Queensland to resume using a pesticide, according to environmental groups.
The World Wildlife Fund says a decision by the Australian government to lift a three-month moratorium on the use of the pesticide, diuron, on tropical crops like bananas, pawpaw, pineapples and sugar cane is a “disaster” for the reef.
“We are very disappointed at this institutional failure,” said Nick Heath, WWF’s spokesman on pesticides.
WWF says diuron has been detected in the reef hundreds of kilometres from its point of application. Nearly a third of the reef has been exposed to pesticides.
“Diuron accounts for 80% of the pesticide load in the reef and is persistent and toxic,” said Heath, adding that it damages sea grasses, which dugongs and sea turtles feed on.
In December a three-month ban on diuron came into force. It covered the wet season when soil run-off is at its greatest. From this weekend, farmers can resume spraying, with some restrictions still in place – spraying is not allowed if 50mm of rain is expected within three days of application or if the land has a slope greater than 3%.
The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, which regulates the use of pesticides, says more analysis is needed before any long term decision on diuron’s future use is made.
“Yes, diuron is toxic on the grasses and yes it will kill the aquatic organisms, but we need to ask whether there is a risk of it getting from the (farming) properties to those areas (on the reef),” said the APVMA’s public affairs manager, Susan Whitbread.
She says her department is analysing further data and stringent controls are still in place.
“Yes there’s an environmental concern, but what we have to do is quantify it and look at whether those risks are capable of being managed before we come to a final decision,” she said.
The sugarcane industry, which is worth about A$ 2bn (£1.3bn) annually in Queensland alone and is the state’s second biggest agricultural commodity, after beef, has welcomed the APVMA’s decision to allow spraying to resume.
“Diuron is a critical and cost effective tool for the sugar cane growing industry,” said Steve Greenwood, CEO of Canegrowers, the peak body for sugarcane farmers.
“If diuron was banned, it’s very likely a lot of the cane farmers would have to revert to old practices like burning to control weeds, which would have a significant environmental impact,” he added.
The acrimony over pesticide use comes just weeks after a UN environmental team visited the reef amid fears its world heritage listing could be placed in jeopardy after a rapid rise in coal exports from the area.
Queensland’s resources boom has led to an expanding number of developments along the state’s coast where the 1,600-mile reef stretches.
Heath added that a combination of this development, climate change and pesticide pollution will cause the reef to die a death of a thousand cuts.
“Most people dream about going to see the Great Barrier Reef. If we don’t start turning this around there won’t be a reef in the future.”