Australia Sustainable Food, Environment, & Social Systems 2017

Blog site for the 2017 MSU study abroad program.

19-Katelyn S.

My research while in Australia focused on tourism of the Great Barrier Reef and the positive and negative effects the industry has on the Reef. I also investigated other factors that are impacting the Reef like agricultural runoff and climate change. We learned that social factors are a large part of sustainability so I also looked at how opinions of the Reef vary by region.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and is so large and distinct that it is the only living thing visible from spaceOne of my most memorable experiences with the Reef was when a shark swam right below me while I was snorkeling. I was able to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef with Passions of Paradise, a tourism company that takes people out to the Reef every day.

Figure 1: A portion of the Great Barrier Reef as seen from our flight into Cairns

Figure 1: A portion of the Great Barrier Reef as seen from our flight into Cairns

As amazing as it was to see the Reef, it was evident that the Great Barrier Reef suffers from coral bleaching. Coral that is stressed by changes in its environment will expel the beneficial algae that occurs naturally within the coral. This bleaches the coral white and is a sign of dead coral (because, just like fish and clams, coral is a living organism too). In my discussions with Julie Carmody, an environmental researcher and expert on the Great Barrier Reef, and the crew of Passions of Paradise, I discovered that scientists and locals have little doubt that climate change is the cause of the Reef’s coral bleaching. A rise in sea temperature often causes a rise in salinity and, together, these off-balance the chemistry of the Reef, causing the coral to bleach.

Figure 2: Bleached coral, photo courtesy of Brooke Bain

Figure 2: Bleached coral, photo courtesy of Brooke Bain

The Reef is facing many challenges in addition to global warming. Natural climatic events, boats, agriculture, chemical contamination from sunscreen, and the Crown of Thorns starfish all pose a significant threat to the Reef. The agricultural industry has taken steps in recent years to reduce their impact on the Reef from runoff. We visited an olive estate and a banana plantation that both use “fertigation”, or the practice of using drip irrigation to apply fertilizer. This reduces the chance that these nutrients could end up in runoff that would pollute the Reef.

Tourism can also be a large contributing factor to coral bleaching but when done properly, can have a low impact and can help educate people about the environmental costs of climate change. The company we traveled with, Passions of Paradise, works hard to have minimal impact and uses a catamaran to sail to the Reef. The crew participates in surveys of the Reef to track its health and there were several educational sessions throughout the day that we could attend.

Figure 3: The fuel efficient catamaran that we sailed on to the Reef

Figure 3: The fuel efficient catamaran that we sailed on to the Reef

Overall, I concluded that although tourism may harm the Reef physically, it has a greater impact in educating the public about the threats of climate change which will ultimately kill the Reef. Opinions of the Reef and its future vary by region but Queenslanders and those who work directly with the Reef remain optimistic that it will survive well into the future. It’s up to the rest of us to reduce our impact on this Earth and slow down climate change.

What you can do to help protect the Great Barrier Reef and ecosystems all over the world:

  • Say “ba-bye” to plastic bags: opt instead for a reusable option; sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for the jellyfish that they eat
  • Skip the straw: plastic straws are an unnecessary part of life that end many animals lives. These little pieces of plastic end up in animals’ stomachs, making it difficult for them to eat
  • Be a smart driver: make your trips to town dual-purpose and cut down on driving when you can; cars put chemicals into the air which then makes the Earth just a little bit warmer (and when we all do this, it gets a LOT warmer)
  • Pull the plug: unplug your chargers and turn off your appliances when you’re not using them; this helps to save energy which in turn, helps to save the world (look at you being a Superhero)
  • Educate yourself: stay up to date on the environment and policies impacting it. You can do this by simply following news organizations on social media AND by checking out these handy links below.

-To learn more about the Great Barrier Reef, check out their website at:

-Passions of Paradise does an incredible job with Eco Tourism. Learn more at:

-To see some of the products grown with fertigation, check out Varapodio Olive Estate at and Natural Evolution Banana Plantation at 

-Or, if you simply want to learn more about efforts to protect the Reef, take a look at some of these websites:


Relavent References:

Australia’s Great Natural Wonder. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2017, from

Carmody, J. (2017, May 28). Far North Queensland- Ecosystems at Risk and How to Preserve. Lecture presented in Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

Passions of Paradise. (n.d.). Eco Tourism. Retrieved August 02, 2017, from

Passions of Paradise Great Barrier Reef Tour. (2017, May 29). Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

Prosser, I. P. (ed.) (2011). Chapters 1, 2, and 9. Water Science and solutions for Australia. Collingwood, VIC, AU CSIRO

Scopelliti, D. (2017, May 22). Varapodio Olive Estate. Lecture, Buronga, New South Wales, Australia.

Watkins, R. (2017, May 31). Natural Evolution Banana Plantation. Lecture presented in Queensland, Australia.


See ya later!

Hi everyone!

My name is Katelyn and I’m the fifth generation on my family farm in Boyne City, a beautiful small town in Northern Michigan. I’m currently a sophomore and am pursuing a degree in Biosystems Engineering with a minor in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. I am a member of MSU Tower Guard, Spartan Sierra Club, WIE Connect, and am an LA for Physics I.

I have always been fascinated by Australia- whether it was the kangaroos and koalas when I was little or the effective use of resources now that I have gotten older. With such a large continent, limited water availability, and the constant threat of inclamatic weather, Australia has developed innovative ways to preserve the natural environment while maintaining effective production. I hope to learn more about this in our trip “Down Under” while enjoying all the sights and sounds that Australia has to offer!

Project Topic 

It is no secret that Australia is home to many diverse ecosystems, including one of the largest and most complex in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. These beautiful habitats have drawn many tourists to the country, creating a significant tourism industry. Humans interact with the environment in many ways and have the ability to both hurt and help the natural ecosystems. While the tourism has led to a greater appreciation for the environment, it has also hurt it significantly. Just as the health of ecosystems are dependent on human actions, humans rely on the environment for both tourism and agriculture. I would like to learn more about the steps that Australians (specifically the industry sector, the agricultural sector, and the national government) are taking in order to preserve the natural ecosystems while maintaining the ability to enjoy and use the natural resources.


  1. (For an industrial site) How are solid and liquid wastes treated? What happens to it once it is treated? Is it reused, stored, or emitted into a nearby natural system? If the latter, what is the regulatory limit for waste into the environment?
  2. (For an agricultural site) What steps are taken to conserve, or reestablish, the local biodiversity? What are examples of local wildlife, plants, soil microbes, aquatic microbes? Are any of these pests? If so, how are they controlled?
  3. (For a government sponsored site, such as a national park) What policies are in place to preserve the natural environment? How long have these policies been in place? Is there any current legislature regarding the environment? If so, is it controversial?


Dell, B., Laurance, W. F., Turton S. M., et al. (may 2011). The 10 Australian ecosystems most vulnerable to tipping points. Biological Conservation , 144(5), 1472-1480. Retrieved March 28, 2017, from

Department of the Environment and Energy. (2006, December 05). Coasts and oceans. Retrieved April 01, 2017, from

Stokes, C., & Howden, M. (2010). Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Preparing Australian Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for the Future. Clayton, Australia: Csiro Publishing.



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