Climate change & agriculture

Farmers are on the front lines of climate change in Australia. Huge swathes of our country’s farmland are currently suffering from the worst drought in living memory, while other parts have experienced devastating flooding and storms that have wiped out entire paddocks of crops in an afternoon. Global grain yields have declined by 10% from heat-waves and floods connected to climate change; bushfires and droughts are becoming the new normal. 

Food security obviously underpins our continued existence as a civilisation, and in Australia food security is much more fragile than most Australians understand. The Garnaut Review into climate impacts on Australia found that there would be a 92-97% decline in irrigated agriculture capacity along the Murray-Darling Basin by the end of century without significant global action on climate change. The Murray-Darling system provides 40% of Australia’s food. Climate change threatens Australia’s capacity to feed ourselves and the nations which we export food to.

Farmers are taking action

We know that farmers all over the country are rising to the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss in diverse ways. Farmers are adopting climate-smart agricultural practices including sustainable intensification, diversification into renewable energy, revegetation, soil carbon sequestration, and regenerative agriculture (examples here, here and here). 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report into 1.5 degrees celcius made it clear last year, that we require brave and transformative change to alter our climate trajectory. More recently the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted the necessity of urgent action to address declining biodiversity and support the health of the natural world. 

In August 2019, the IPCC Special Report into Land Use & Agriculture will be released which is expected to highlight the key role agriculture must play in adapting and mitigating climate change. 

As a sector, we have bold ambitions to become a $100 billion industry by 2030. We’re very proud of our role as land custodians and are committed to being around for the long haul, and bringing the next generation of Aussie farmers back to the land. Our future truly is in our hands. 

Agriculture's environmental responsibilities

Agriculture is both vulnerable to and partially responsible for the challenges brought about by climate change. Globally, agriculture contributes a significant share of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions causing climate change – 17% directly through agricultural activities and an additional 7% to 14% through land use changes. 

Farmers are responsible for managing much of Australia’s ecosystem, with 48% of Australia’s land privately owned or leased for agricultural production. This land is thought to hold about two-thirds of Australia’s remnant native vegetation. Australian farmers have both a societal obligation and an economic imperative to care for this natural capital.

Australian agriculture, climate change and the economic implications

The direct effects of climate change on Australian agricultural production include fluctuations in growing conditions, water availability and frequency of adverse weather events resulting in price volatility and market uncertainty. Using the GTEM and Ausregion modelling methods, it is estimated that climate change impacts would cause Australian gross domestic product (GDP) to decline by 5–11% in 2050, compared to a business-as-usual GDP scenario without climate change.

Climate change and agriculture: policy challenges

Development of climate change policy has been problematic in the current Australian political landscape. Nonetheless, Australia has committed to a target of reducing emissions to 26–28% on 2005 levels by 2030, representing a 50–52% reduction in emissions per capita and a 64–65% reduction in the emissions intensity of the economy between 2005 and 2030.

Federal Government strategies have supported agricultural adaptation to and mitigation of climate change impacts, for example the Emissions Reduction Fund, which in 2017 the Australian Farm Institute estimated distributed more than $225 million between farmers, land managers and carbon service providers. In February 2019, the Australian Government established a Climate Solutions Fund (CSF) to provide an additional $2 billion for purchasing low-cost abatement.

What we need

A national strategy on climate change and Australian agriculture must be adopted by the Federal Government via the Agriculture Ministers' Forum to better co-ordinate currently disparate industry, government and NGO efforts. This strategy should sit on a foundation of risk minimisation, supported by the pillars of strong research, development and extension, adoption of clean energy and a focus on the capture and storage of carbon, within an environment of continuous improvement.

Farmers for Climate Action commissioned the Australian Farm Institute to produce a report on the need for a national strategy.

The report, to be officially launched in September, can be downloaded here.

What a national strategy would address

FCA has called on all Australian governments to commit to a long-term, multi-partisan national strategy on climate change and agriculture to 2050, supported by AGMIN. The 2050 Strategy proposed by FCA would support the long-term viability of Australian agriculture in a changing climate via focus on these goals:

  1. Physical risks: Identify direct and indirect risks to Australian agri-food systems, including risks to primary production, biosecurity, food processing, food safety, farmer health, key infrastructure, equity, animal welfare, export markets, farm inputs, etc.
  2. Identify risks associated with likely changes in policy, technology, and market conditions in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
  3. Identify opportunities to:
    1. Enhance the capacity of key agri-food stakeholders to manage risk and build resilience;
    2. Reduce emissions from the agri-food system while lifting productivity; and
    3. Promote the innovation, efficiency, and overall performance and productivity of the agri-food sector in a low-carbon economy and a changing climate
  4. Identify priorities for research, development, and extension, and facilitate an augmented RD&E capacity.
  5. Build on existing state and federal climate-related policies and plans, identify gaps in the policy architecture, and strengthen governance arrangements.
  6. Include a long-term strategy for clean energy development and energy security in rural and regional Australia.
  7. Realise the long-term carbon sequestration and resilience potential of production landscapes.
  8. Build the climate and carbon literacy along with innovation and adaptive capacity of farmers and other key stakeholders, including by engaging them in the development of the 2050 Strategy.
  9. Set ambitious yet achievable short-, medium-, and long-term targets for emissions reduction and climate change adaptation in the agri-food sector in accordance with Australia’s international commitments.

These goals can be summarised thus:

  1. Minimise the risks to agriculture, food security, and rural communities from climate change by adapting, reducing emissions, and lifting productivity.
  2. Help agriculture to realise opportunities to build value, make efficiency gains, and diversify as the world economy shifts into low-carbon gear.
  3. Strengthen agricultural research, development, and extension (RD&E) so farmers can manage the risks and be part of the solution.
  4. Build a strong clean energy sector with benefits shared fairly by rural and regional communities.
  5. Realise the long-term potential of healthy working landscapes to capture and store carbon.
  6. Identify gaps in current policies and programs – federal and state – and fill them.