Ban on toxic mercury looms in sugar cane farming, but Australia still has a way to go

Posted 18 July 2020

The Connected Waters Initiative's Professors Cameron Holley and Darren Sinclair and Australian National University's Professor Simon Haberle and Larissa Schneider recently contributed to The Conversation, discussing federal authorities announcement of "an upcoming ban on mercury-containing pesticide in Australia", highlighting Australia is "one of the last countries in the world to do so, despite overwhelming evidence over more than 60 years that mercury use as fungicide in agriculture is dangerous." 

They assert "the ban will prevent about 5,280 kilograms of mercury entering the Australian environment each year." 

Holley, Sinclair, Haberle and Schneider highlight the gradual banning of production and use of mercury-based pesticides on crops, especially following the Iraqi grain disaster in 1971-72, however note that despite this global trend, Australian "authorities exempted a fungicide containing mercury known as Shirtan. They restricted its use to sugar cane farming in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.According to the sugar cane industry, about 80% of growers use Shirtan to treat pineapple sett rot disease."

Finally, the authors note, "Shirtan’s registration was cancelled last week. It will no longer be produced in Australia, but existing supplies can be sold to, and used by, sugar cane farmers for the next year until it is fully banned." 

Australia's continued use of Shirtan "allowed about 50,000 kilograms of mercury into the environment. The effect on river and reef ecosystems is largely unknown." The authors note that furher research is required to fully understand its ecological impacts. 

Holley, Sinclair, Haberle and Schneider discuss Australia's failure to Minamata Convention on Mercury and explore the potential implications of ratification; for example, what ratification would mean for coal-fired power stations and pollution control licenses.  They note, however, that Australian authorities' examination of these potential implications has been slow.

The full article is accessible here. 

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