Project Catalyst – Harvesting Innovation in Sugarcane

Project Catalyst is a significant contributor to improving water quality on a global scale, creating pathways for sugarcane growers to improve on-farm performance, build resilience, enhance productivity and create enduring environmental benefits on and off farm.

Catchment Solutions Sugarcane paddock and farmer

Harvesting Innovation in Sugarcane

Project Catalyst commenced in 2009 as a pioneering partnership between WWF-Australia, The Coca-Cola Foundation, Reef Catchments and a dedicated group of cane farmers in the Mackay Whitsunday region of the state of Queensland. In 2011 the project expanded into the Burdekin and Wet Tropics regions and in December 2021 has 79 participating sugarcane growers, from Sarina in the South to Mossman in the North, that farm about 18,400 ha of cane land.
Since 2009, Project Catalyst has evaluated a range of innovative farming practices, some of which are being more widely adopted by the industry, including banded mill mud application, soil mapping, GPS technology, and variable rate fertiliser application. Only those practices that deliver an environmental and economic benefit are promoted more widely to the industry.

Project Catalyst Reef Champion Award Winners Feb 2019
Project Catalyst Reef Champion Award Winners Feb 2019


The project is making a valuable contribution to identifying and validating the innovative practices that will assist the Queensland cane industry to adopt practices consistent with the goals and targets of Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Long Term Sustainability Plan including the 2025 water quality targets.

Project Catalyst is structured so that the participating growers have input to the list of practices evaluated. This approach has helped a culture of innovation and collaboration to flourish amongst the participating growers that has created a more positive approach to the change facing the industry.

Project Catalyst delivering real practice change with real results.

Project Catalyst has been in operation for 13 years with each round of projects delivering impressive on-ground results both from an environmental aspect but also impacting social and economic factors for the growers (and industry) involved with the project.  The Reef Trust 3 program that ran from 2016 to 2019 delivered 133 innovation and early adoption trials.

The area of land impacted by the involvement of just the sugar cane growers directly involved with Project Catalyst innovation and early adoption trials as at 30 June 2019 represented 8.5% or just over 26 000 hectares of available cane production land in the three catchment regions.

Over the three years DIN (Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen) runoff was reduced by 62 tonnes and sediment loss was reduced by 319 tonnes.

2978 participants attended 67 events including the Annual Grower Forums, Field Days, Shed Meetings, Training Sessions and Bus Trips that were held during the period of the project.

The project has created significant social impact and the Reef Water Quality Report Card 2019 notes that Project Catalyst events produced important social outcomes.

Reef Water Quality Report Card 2019

Improving farm management systems and practices through a broader adoption program.

In 2022 Project Catalyst is delivering a broader adoption program across the Mackay / Whitsundays, Burdekin and Wet Tropics catchments working with growers to improve their farm management systems.  These projects are funded by the Australian Federal Government Reef Trust program, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Coca Cola Foundation and WWF-Australia.

Through the Project Catalyst network and partner base, growers can access peer-to-peer support, the services of professional extension agronomists and connect with broader resource services and communication products.  The aim of introducing improved farming practices that balance inputs with productivity in a move away from the ‘take-make-waste’ model. This includes building on sustainability successes and productivity gains, including regenerative farming practices where appropriate.

Project metrics are tracked with the Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program that predicts reductions in DIN (Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen), Fine Sediment and Pesticide pollution that impact the Great Barrier Reef. Growers monitor productivity in terms of farmed produce outputs and cost reduction. In 2020, 155 Project Catalyst growers farming 43,000ha of sugarcane saved 39 tonnes if DIN, 6,750 tonnes of Fine Sediment and 7.6kg of Pesticides from reaching the Great Barrier Reef.

To learn more about Project Catalyst please check out the website.

Project Catalyst website