Queensland Farmers' Federation boss's denial of science sparks call to suspend reef grants
The Queensland Farmers’ Federation’s newly elected president once called Great Barrier Reef science “unsubstantiated scaremongering”, which has prompted calls for the suspension of the organisation’s reef foundation grants.
The peak body for Queensland farmers, the QFF manages water quality improvement grants from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation totalling $4.6m – among the most awarded to a single organisation under a controversial $443m federal funding deal.
Its new president, Bundaberg cane grower Allan Dingle, recently sought to cast doubt on the consensus science that farm pollution is harming the reef.
“Much of the science being used to justify the attempted regulation of our region is more about funding for a particular belief, it lacks science and is backed up instead by some dodgy modelling,” Dingle, who is the chair of Canegrowers Bundaberg, wrote in that organisation’s newsletter this year.
“The Bundaberg sugar industry does not accept without question the science provided to justify the claims made and will not accept guilt for a crime that we have not committed.”
Dingle has this week backed away from those statements – including some made just three months ago – and told Guardian Australia they do not represent the views of the QFF or its members.
Some farmers say they are concerned his elevation could damage an already strained relationship with the Queensland government after a bruising debate about water quality regulations that veered into science denial and conspiracy.
Dingle introduced the contrarian scientist, Peter Ridd, at an event in Bundaberg in August and helped to promote the talk by saying: “Cane farmers are being pushed to the wall by overregulation based on unsubstantiated scaremongering around the Great Barrier Reef, and Ridd is setting the record straight.”
In Senate estimates last month, federal bureaucrats revealed they had written to Queensland Canegrowers – of which Dingle is a board member – using “strong wording” to seek clarification about whether the organisation was “conflicted” by promoting Ridd’s speaking tour while also managing Great Barrier Reef Foundation grants.
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said Dingle’s appointment was a “concerning development” and that further reef foundation grants to the QFF should be paused.
“The foundation shouldn’t be giving public money to any recipient who is not fully committed to environmental outcomes based on the best available science,” Whish-Wilson said.
“The foundation should put on hold any further grants to the QFF until the foundation is satisfied that the QFF are fully committed to restoring and advocating for the best health of the reef.”
An overwhelming majority of experts say the Great Barrier Reef is at risk from pollution by agricultural chemicals. A recent study revealed the extent of controversial pesticides found in the reef catchment.
The debate about reef regulations ultimately highlighted stark differences in approach among the agricultural sector. Cane growers’ groups and AgForce, which represents pastoralists and grain producers, attempted to undermine the science.
Many other farming organisations took the moderate position that there were flaws in the regulations but did not dispute the science or the need to play a role.
The QFF’s position acknowledges that climate change is the clearly greatest threat to the reef, but that runoff from farming is a problem that requires increased efforts.
“QFF does not question that land-based runoff remains a problem and that efforts must be increased if we are going to meet the ambitious targets set by governments,” former CEO Travis Tobin said in September.
It is understood the QFF has sought to reassure some of its member groups that Dingle will cut his association with Canegrowers Bundaberg and the Bundaberg Regional Irrigators’ Group and now toe the organisation’s policy line.
Dingle said in a detailed statement that he was in the process of stepping down from various board positions since he was confirmed as QFF president on Thursday.
“The comments referred to were made in my capacity as the chairman of Canegrowers Bundaberg, not as president of the Queensland Farmers’ Federation and therefore do not represent the views of QFF or its industry members.
“QFF’s position on the Great Barrier Reef and natural resource management has been, and remains, that a sustainable and profitable Queensland agriculture sector is essential to the longevity and prosperity of our sector and the environment.”
Some in the sector remain unconvinced. One north Queensland farmer who alerted Guardian Australia to Dingle’s election said the situation threatened QFF’s ability to represent a diverse sector and to lobby on behalf of members.
“He’s going to have to go to government and get a deal out of them for farmers. How can they take him seriously given what he’s said?” he said.
“On the reef regs we couldn’t negotiate with [the Queensland government] because of the way these groups just dismissed the studies and said there was no evidence there was a problem. That cost us a better deal, there’s no doubt about it.
“[Dingle’s elevation to QFF president] is not a good signal really that the industry’s main body thinks he’s the person to represent them. Farmers can’t talk to government. We need the QFF to do that for us. And I really question whether he’s appropriate to be leading that.”