Thinking about “Smartcane”

sonia, kim and lucas
Kim and Lucas with Sonia Ball (centre) the Canegrowers Manager of Communications

This is a shout out to Sonia Ball from Canegrowers, who we had a fantastic meeting with a few weeks ago. A lot of the difficult thinking in my earlier blog post emerged from our discussion with Sonia, who is the Canegrowers Manager of Communications. Canegrowers is “the principal body representing the state’s sugarcane growers”, advocating on behalf of farmers for a whole range of stuff including safety, marketing, training, human resources admin, etc. It’s not compulsory for farmers to join Canegrowers, but from what I gather a majority find it worthwhile and are paid-up members.

Sonia was, justifiably, curious about the motivations behind our project, especially with such a provocative title as Sugar vs the Reef?. At the beginning of our conversation, Sonia expressed concern that the project’s title might cast the sugar cane industry in a bad light, and that it might alienate some people from the very community that we’re wanting to work with. Our point is that the sugar cane industry is already being cast in a bad light in the media, and that the industry won’t gain anything by glossing over that fact. It needs to face this public relations issue front-on. Our goal is to make the discussion more nuanced, rather than to further polarise it.

Sonia sat with us for more than two hours going into the nuances of this industry – including industrial relations, environmental performance, and the poor reputation of sugar as a foodstuff. Just the day before, Barnaby Joyce had visited Mackay and poo-pooed the idea of a sugar tax (which had somewhat embarrassingly been mooted by a member of the Liberal Party):

One of the things I’ve been trying to get my head around since I’ve been in Mackay is “BMP”, so we quizzed Sonia about that. The Canegrowers’ Best Managment Practice (BMP) program is one way that the organisation is tackling its public relations image. Called SmartCane BMP, the program is an accreditation scheme where farmers can align their practices with a set of seven principles:

1. Soil health and plant nutrition management (core)
2. Pest, disease and weed management (core)
3. Drainage and Irrigation management (core)
4. Crop production and harvest management.
5. Natural systems management.
6. Farm business management.
7. Workplace health and safety management.


Sonia said that the idea is to help farmers to be “economically sound and sustainable”, which in the future will be a prerequisite for access to an international sugar market which will have minimum sustainability requirements. SmartCane BMP is funded by the Queensland government, and is one of the ways that public money is being spent to improve water quality in the Great Barrier Reef.

This all sounds very positive – and the program is voluntary, so nobody is being forced to do anything. However, there does seem to be a slight menacing undertone to some of the info surrounding SmartCane. For example, on the SmartCane website, it says:

The Queensland Government has provided funding towards this industry-developed, industry-owned program and said that growers who are engaged will not be the focus of its reef regulations.

So… does that mean that growers who are NOT engaged in Smartcane WILL be the focus of reef regulations? According to this article on the ABC (from December last year), the answer is yes:

Cane growers who are not signed up for the industry’s Best Practice Management (BMP) program should expect extra attention from authorities next year.

(And I’m presuming this “extra attention” is not going to be pleasant!) As Matt Keally, who is the Canegrowers Queensland environment manager says in that article, “growers who are not accredited under the BMP program will come under some type of scrutiny.”

Since that article was published 10 months ago, I’d be curious to know what the follow up has been on this spectre of scrutiny. Perhaps Sonia will be able to chime in?

I remember from our meeting with Sonia that the uptake of BMP has not been as strong as Canegrowers had hoped, and that this was partly due to the online registration process. Thinking about barriers to uptake, Richard Prior, one of the members of CQSHS, mentioned to me recently that the ability to use computers is certainly one factor, as is the education level of farmers generally. To this I would add the need for spare time on top of all the requirements of running a farm to complete the BMP modules. (For example, this module on soil health seems pretty daunting.)

There are some great stories here about the transformations that BMP has already enabled. One of Sonia’s goals as Communications manager is to get good-news messages circulating about the initiatives of sugar cane farmers, and I agree that this is a positive way to boost enthusiasm for improvement in the industry. 

Threats of top-down scrutiny and “crack-downs” by government agencies do not seem to be effective ways to encourage cultural change.