It was only a few days ago, the panicked cry that made brief headlines in the news. On the eastern coast of Australia, in the portion of the Great Barrier Reef north of Port Douglas, researchers have proclaimed that most corals are dead. It's the worst bleaching event recorded in the Barrier Reef. The decimation can be ascribed to a number of complaints - rising sea temperatures, strong El Nino conditions, crown of thorns attacks - yet there has been a longer history of impacts from degradation on the land and direct exploitation of the reef itself.
For the far north, temperature may be the biggest threat to corals. Moving further south in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment, there are other forces at work that derive closer to home. The sugarcane industry in Queensland dates back to 1861, fueled by south sea indentured (and forced) labour, not unlike its turbulent counterparts in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the troubled history of human rights infractions in most of the Western world is a topic for another time and place. Sugarcane, along with pasture and banana, replaced over half of the primary tropical forest in Northern Queensland. Even today, the management of grazing land and cane results in pollution that makes its way into coastal waters.
Now those of you who are familiar with the challenges in the Gulf of Mexico, realize this is a similar (albeit, tropical in flavour) phenomenon. A large amount of cash crop (corn in the US, sugarcane in Queensland) is grown, using an associated amount of fertiliser and other chemicals. When there is a heavier rainfall, particularly during those summer storm months, soil is washed away along with the nitrogen, phosphorous, and pesticides, and eventually makes it to the Gulf or the Reef. This influx of nutrients stimulate the growth a algae (and the voracious crown of thorns starfish in the GBR), which ultimately use up oxygen when they die and decompose. The silt and other particulates block sunlight from penetrating the water column, making it difficult for marine plant life to survive. Basically, these conditions can become drastic enough that the coastal areas are uninhabitable for fish and other wildlife.
Now, the obituary to the Great Barrier Reef that has coral scientists up in arms may be a bit melodramatic, and could very well be counterproductive to actually doing something to increase the reef's resilience. Yet research shows that existing policies and management plans have so far proved inadequate to addressing the scale and severity of the problem. As an avid baker, it is quite concerning that by buying the Australian-grown cane sugar available in the grocery store, I inadvertently contribute to the reef's degradation. It's hard to find a meaningful indicator of sustainability when always worrying about greenwashing with labels, particularly when they involve partnerships between WWF and Coca Cola. But we do what we can, and try to stay informed as possible (particularly when feeding a bunch of conservationists...). For now, the Bonsucro certification (applicable to several sugar brands in Oz) does lay out thorough ecological and social standards that sugar production must meet - touching on labour, climate change, biodiversity, and downstream impacts. Maybe coral-inspired cookies will be my next [bitter]sweet baking adventure...