SWEET 2021: What’s coming up for the sugarcane industry
The sugar industry is primed for a big year in 2021 with ongoing trade disputes, plans to diversify and hopes for summer La Nina rainfalls.
Canegrowers Queensland chairman Paul Schembri said the second round of Australia's dispute against India unfairly subsidising its own sugarcane growers would be heard in early 2021 following the first hearing on December 7.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade acting chief trade law officer Ravi Kewalram presented the opening statement at the World Trade Organisation hearing.
"It gives Australia no pleasure to bring this dispute against India, a valued friend and a partner, with whom we share a commitment to the rules-based trading system," Mr Kewalram had said.
Mr Schembri said the Australian sugar industry's susceptibly to global prices and the forces of COVID-19 would ramp up efforts in 2021 to diversify the industry.
"Historically … 94 per cent of our revenue has been reliant on the sales of sugar," he said.
"We just want to, if we can, manage the risk exposure we have to a volatile international market.
"At the start of (2020), the sugar price soared; it got up to nearly $500 a tonne of sugar.
"Then COVID hit and it collapsed.
"And when you have an external event such as another government like India deciding to subsidise its farmers, we have little control over circumstances.
"If you look at industries such as in Thailand and Brazil, they have built resilience by developing different income streams out of the opportunities of the cane plant."
Mr Schembri said the four industry bodies - Canegrowers, the Australian Sugar Milling Council, the Australian Cane Farmers Association and Sugar Research Australia - had been meeting to develop serious plans for the industry's future.
"There's been moments in our history where we've had particular problems and crises to deal with," he said.
"The organisations are coming together to say, 'we've got a major problem'."
He said diversifying could include options like bioenergy, cogeneration, biofuels like ethanol, bioplastics and so forth.
"The community is focused on the need for renewable energy and products that are environmentally sustainable," Mr Schembri said.
"Every year we grow around 400,000 hectares (988,422 acres) of sugarcane that can deliver on these needs.
"We have to find opportunities for our industry in this.
"What the Queensland election campaign showed us is that we cannot rely on the political process to provide leadership or direction to shape agriculture's destiny.
"We, as a sugar industry and agriculture more broadly, must do it for ourselves and we have started down this road."
Best Management Practice and the Reef Bill
Also on the 2021 agenda was a continued focus on best practice management with 600 Queensland growers, or 35 per cent of the cane area, having achieved Smartcane BMP accreditation in 2020, 18 months ahead of target.
"Cane growers, cane farmers - call them what you will - the sugar industry generally over a long period of time has shown a dogged determination to want to demonstrate that we have the capacity within our farmers, that we've got the skills to farm at best management practice," Mr Schembri said.
"We'd like to continue that journey.
"2021 will be an important year because a lot of the new provisions of the Reef Protection Bill will come into play … and we're going to have to manage those issues as best as we can.
"I'm calling upon the government to reflect upon the fact that you've got a major industry that never failed, even through the COVID and (global) prices.
"This year's sugarcane harvest was 29.3 million tonnes in Queensland, a result around 900,000 tonnes higher than the 2019 season.
"If (government is) genuinely wanting to back agriculture, this is a great time for them."
Mr Schembri said farmers now keenly anticipated La Nina rainfall to prop up the 2021 season since news of the summer weather event broke about four months ago.
But that was provided the cyclones stayed away.
"I thank the growers of the Queensland industry for their ongoing dedication, the field crews for their harvest work and mill workers for processing our sugarcane," Mr Schembri said.
"As an industry we have worked together this year to ensure we remained on track and on task as COVID-19 disrupted the rest of the economy.
"Agriculture is a solid foundation for many of our communities and Queensland's bottom line.
"Despite the closure of two mills in the southern region, we do have confidence in 2021 and our industry for a long-term prosperous future."