Rethinking Food Production in Australia in Light of the Climate Crisis

Article by: Andrew Martin author of, Rethink... Your World, Your Future and Director of Rethink Consult

A 2020 Update 

I posted this article in early 2019 when things were already tough for farmers. Since then, the grip of drought and extreme temperatures have tightened further, for not only farmers but across entire segments of the community. We have witnessed the devastation of the unprecedented bush-fires in most states of Australia which ripped through millions of hectares of forests, taking with it untold numbers of native wildlife. Farmers along the generally lush east coast which receives significant annual rainfalls are also struggling from the worst drought they have ever seen.  In parts of NSW dozens of towns are down to only a few months of water supply, while most regions across NSW, VIC, and SA are all on some level of water restrictions.

Data from the Bureau of Meteorology's (BOM) confirmed the national area average rainfall was the lowest on record. While Australia's annual mean and maximum temperatures both broke records set in 2013 recording 1.52 degrees Celsius above the 1961-90 average of 21.8C. These are all ominous signs of a longer term upward trend. Research and monitoring from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA Goddard Institute found that the past five years have been the hottest since record-keeping began in 1880. 2019 marked the 43rd consecutive year that global land and ocean temperatures were above average. In light of these recent trends, it is reexamining some of the reasons why we are where we are today and some of the solutions. Over the coming months we will publish more articles with ideas and solutions for moving forward. If nothing else, his article highlights the need to build local, regional and national resilience into our systems. We need to move towards a more regenerative way of living and coexisting with other species. 

Unprecedented Changes Needed

The latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in October last year warned we need to make urgent and ‘unprecedented changes’ in around ten years to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C. If we don’t then humanity and the planet faces significantly worsening risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The report goes onto to recommend carbon pollution would have to be cut by 45% by 2030 if we were to stay under 1.5C.  The IPCC mapped out various pathways to achieve 1.5C, these included changes in land use, technological change, reforestation and shifts to electric transport systems.

Risks Underplayed and Conservative

A report published only months prior to the IPCC report titled, ‘What Lies Beneath, The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk’ by Daivd Spratt, Ian Dunlop and Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, suggest IPCC reports tend to ‘err on the side of least drama.’ Schellnhuber was head of the ‘Potsdam Institute’ for Climate Impact Research for twenty years, a senior advisor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union.

The ‘What Lies Beneath’ report suggests that the bulk of climate research from the IPCC tends to underplay the risks, exhibiting a preference for conservative projections and scholarly reticence. The authors also claim the IPCC reports tend toward caution and downplay more extreme and more damaging outcomes. This is dangerously misleading with the acceleration of climate impacts globally.

The importance of this paper challenging the IPCC’s reporting lies in climate policymaking and the public narrative are significantly informed by the work of the IPCC. The ‘What Lies Beneath’ report also alludes to pressures exerted upon the IPCC by political and vested interests which is obscuring the real challenge.

Conservative Projections and Scholarly and Scientific Reticence

As well as scientists downplaying, softening and remaining silent about the seriousness of climatic impacts we have vested interests and media outlets reluctant to report these issues truthfully to the public. Under-reporting on these issues is also ‘irresponsible and limiting’ significant action. One climate scientist told me he presented at a climate conference in Europe on the challenges of climate change. Over ninety five percent of his presentation was devoted to the challenges and the enormity of the problem. Of the remaining five percent of the presentation (which happened to be  taken out of context) reported in the media, the leading story read there was nothing to worry about.

Today the world emits 50% more carbon dioxide (CO2) from the consumption of energy than it did 25 years ago, and the global economy has more than doubled in size. Humanity is consuming more resources than at any time in history, requiring the biophysical capacity of 1.7 Earths annually. With the planetary future being held hostage by short termism, vested interests and myopic national self-interest, the risks increase every day. The optimistic nature of humanity putting its faith in technology on the assumption that some ‘unproven technologies’ will save the day, at some point in the near future, exacerbates the inaction and apathy towards making significant change.

Like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they reside on, it seems like many, not all, policy makers and climate scientists have favoured short-term political and commercial advantage over long term thinking and statesmanship. Even the traditionally conservative International Energy Agency, claim we’re headed for an increase in temperature in excess of 5C if we continue on the energy intensive path we are presently on.  While few governments are taking ‘significant’ legislative action, most are aware of the risks. This was echoed by the ‘Director of the Central Intelligence Agency’ (CIA) of the United States John Brennan in late 2015 at the opening session of the Global Security Forum 2015.’

“Mankind’s relationship with the natural world is aggravating these problems and is a potential source of crisis itself.  Sharply reduced crop yields in multiple places simultaneously could trigger a shock in food prices with devastating effect, especially in already fragile regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.”

John Brennan – Director Central Intelligence Agency (2013 – 2017)

Embedded Complexity – A Cautionary Tale

A combination of dwindling resources and climatic shifts has already played out in Syria. More intense and frequent droughts linked to climate change, between 2002 and 2008, halved the country's total water resources.  In 1996 Syria produced approximately 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) this declined to approximately 385,000 bpd in 2010. Oil a major financial windfall for the Syrian government was confronted with dwindling profits from oil exports and a fiscal deficit. In May 2008 the government was forced to reduce fuel subsidies tripling the price of petrol overnight. This price increase impacted the cost of food.

From 2010 to 2011, the price of wheat doubled, fuelled by a combination of extreme weather events linked to climate change. Oil price spikes intensified speculation on food commodities - impacting Syrian wheat imports. Once self-sufficient in wheat production, Syria now became increasingly dependent on increasingly costly grain imports. In 2011-12 grain imports rose by 1 million tonnes, by 2012-13 this increased to around 4 million tonnes. Drought ravaged Syrian farmlands, led to several crop failures, and drove hundreds of thousands of people from predominantly Sunni rural areas into coastal cities traditionally dominated by the Alawite minority. The food price hikes sparked the protests that evolved into armed rebellion. The origins of Syria's 'war by proxy' can be attributed to converging climate, oil and debt crises within a politically repressive state.

Rethinking Australian Agriculture

2018 saw significant drought affect Europe, Argentina, South Africa and much of Australia. It is estimated the economic cost of the Australian drought could be as much as $12 billion.  With expected continued hot weather to come into 2019 it seems like a good time to consider what the future of farming might be, not just in Australia, but everywhere.

There has been significant coverage of the plight of farmers over recent months. Anecdotal stories and commentary reaching the media include: “this is by far the worst drought I have ever seen,”  “the government has abandoned farmers” to “there was no rain at all to sow a crop this year” and “the rain events are fewer and further between.” These seem to be common threads within much of the farming community within Australia.

While it is hard not to feel sorry for farmers it does raise the question, if the climate is shifting and creating more extreme weather events, then what does the future hold for Australian agriculture and food production? To answers this question it is worth revisiting the work of Jared Diamond who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Guns Germs and Steel. His follow- up book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, gives a gripping insight into the challenges of farming in Australia. He dedicates an entire chapter of his book to Australia, highlighting the challenges which provide insight into what we might do to address the challenges. The chapter Diamond devoted to Australia was a critical look at why Australia is one of the most vulnerable nations on earth. Written back in 2005, Diamond words are just as relevant today, if not more so.  Diamond suggests Australia is the most unproductive continent when it comes to agriculture. This is due primarily to Australian soils being billions of years old; hence they have become leached of their nutrients by rain over the course of time. Soils on average have the lowest nutrient levels, the lowest plant growth rates, and the lowest productivity of any country.

Australia’s wheat belt, one of the most valuable agricultural areas, is effectively leached of nutrients and almost ‘all nutrients’ must be added artificially as fertilizer. As a result of the poor quality soils Australian has to deal with disproportionately high fertilizer and fuel costs. Without significant supplement from artificial fertilizers many of the areas would be unable to grow crops. His analysis also examines Australia's rainfall which is highly unpredictable in nature. Many of the early settlers and pastoralists were seduced into thinking the lands were lush and productive, they soon realised Australian rainfall is insufficient to raise crops to maturity on a regular basis.

Aussie Farming Practices Helping Create Man-Made Drought

Diamond cites land degradation as one of the major environmental problems facing Australia. Poor land management practices, most of which is a hangover from the original settlers, have resulted in clearance of native vegetation, overgrazing by sheep, cattle, rabbits, soil nutrient exhaustion, soil erosion, man-made droughts, weeds, misguided government policies, and salinisation.  These extensive land clearance practices of, overgrazing with sheep and cattle, along with vegetation removal, creates hotter and drier conditions. Soils are exposed to more direct sunlight as shade is removed impeding plant growth in much the same way as does a natural drought. There is much historical evidence to illustrate the impacts of clearing once forested productive areas and rainfall patterns.  Studies are showing more plants make for more rain. Greenery can have a number of effects on a local climate. A study in Africa showed that vegetation effects account for around 30% of annual rainfall.

Productivity in Question

Australia has one of the highest rates of tree clearing of any developed country historically. Increasing amounts of the Australian landscape is deforested and denuded by land-clearing, erosion and salinisation contributing to Australia's ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions equal to the country's total motor vehicle emissions. Over the last two years alone more than 700,000 hectares of forest and bush-land were destroyed in Queensland, making way for cattle farming and cropping. It is estimated that potentially another 3 million hectares will be destroyed in Australia by 2030.

While land clearance has increased over the decades farm productivity has declined. In the 1960's, farm product accounted for about 12.5 per cent (on average) of Australia’s GDP. By the early 1980's, farm product had declined to less than 6 per cent of GDP. Today farm production accounts for about 2.5 per cent of Australia’s GDP. The most recent droughts have had a direct impact on the Australia’s overall growth rate, reducing this figure by at least one percentage point.

In Diamonds estimation 99 per cent of the agricultural land makes little or no positive contribution to Australia's economy. It turns out that about 80 per cent of Australia's agricultural profits are derived from less than 0.8 per cent of its agricultural land. Diamond is critical in his assessment of the true economic costs of agriculture much of which are muted. The externalities do not fully measure the cost of permanent landscape degradation, especially the continuing damage to the Great Barrier Reef, worth significantly more to Australia than any extra agriculture being extracted. “Much of Australia's remaining agriculture is in effect a ‘mining operation’ that does not add to Australia's wealth, merely converting natural capital of soil and native vegetation into cash, with the help of indirect government subsidies ..."

Climate Shifts and Food Production

While Australia currently produces more food than it consumes, being a net food exporter, its domestic food consumption continues to increase as its population grows. If that trend continues, Australia could become a net importer rather than exporter of food, that is, if other countries don’t have similar challenges.

The Reserve Bank Governor, Philip Lowe says an extended drought would have a "significant" effect on the economy and food prices and could cost up to $12 billion. The ‘Climate Councils’ 2015 report titled, Feeding a Hungry Nation echoes the words of Diamond a decade earlier. Australia is projected to be one of the ‘most adversely’ affected regions from future changes in climate in terms of reductions in agricultural production and exports. The report outlined a number of major stresses which will make it more challenging to produce food under Australian conditions. These include;

  • Climate change is making weather patterns more extreme and unpredictable
  • More frequent and intense heatwaves and extreme weather events are already affecting food prices in Australia
  • Climate change is affecting the quality and seasonal availability of many foods in Australia
  • Australia is extremely vulnerable to disruptions in food supply through extreme weather events
  • Australia’s international competitiveness in many agricultural markets will be challenged by the warming climate and changing weather patterns
  • If the current rate of warming persists, adaptation to food production challenges will be increasingly difficult and expensive

The four main exports of Australia include, beef, wheat, dairy and sugar all of which require vast areas of land and scarce water resources. All require constant fossil fuel inputs to be maintained and are highly vulnerable to water scarcity, extreme heat and cheap energy.

Climate Impacts on Food Production

  • Heat stress reduces milk yield by 10-25% and up to 40% in extreme heatwave conditions.
  • The yields of many important crop species such as wheat, rice and maize are reduced at temperatures more than 30°C.
  • Many foods produced by plants growing at elevated CO2 have reduced protein and mineral concentrations, reducing their nutritional value.
  • Harsher climate conditions will increase use of more heat-tolerant breeds in beef production, some of which have lower meat quality and reproductive rates.

The Tyranny of Distance

While climate change will be an influencing feature in the Australian agricultural sector over the coming decades, supply chain challenges will also create potential problems. Diamond outlines, many Australian historians speak of the "tyranny of distance" as an important factor in Australia's development. That expression refers to the long overseas ship journeys making transport costs per pound or per unit of volume for Australian exports higher than for exports from the New World to Europe. Products with relatively ‘low bulk to value ratio’ be can be exported more economically from Australia than ‘low value high bulk to ratio’ products. While the potential for disruptions to international trade is one thing, local distribution is another.


Food Miles Australia

In 2007 the Centre for Education and Research into Environmental Strategies (CERES) wanted to ascertain how far the average basket of goods travelled (for a typical food basket in Victoria) along with the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions. The total distance of the road transportation in the food basket (of 29 standard supermarket items) was 21,073 kilometres (km), almost the same distance to travel around Australia’s coastline. The total distance for all transportation of the food basket is 70,803 km, equivalent to travelling nearly twice around the circumference of the Earth. The accompanying greenhouse emissions were equivalent for all food trucks transporting all road-transported food items, over the total road transport distance, was 16, 989 tonnes (t) CO2–e.

Optimism from Diamond

Australia to some degree carries the cultural identity of the original settlers, with cattle and sheep still dominating the Australian landscape. The appropriateness of many of Australia’s farming practices will come under closer scrutiny as vulnerabilities increase. Over recent decades Australia has gone from mining the soils and the landscape to mining minerals such as iron ore, coal and other industrial minerals. While Australia has ridden on the sheep’s back for some time so to speak, it might now be the perfect opportunity to rethink what we are doing and where we want to be. Having spent many years living in Australia, Diamond has seen first-hand how resilience the Australian people are and is slightly optimistic about Australia’s future. He believes Australia has a well-educated populace, a high standard of living, and relatively honest political and economic institutions by world standards, which holds it in good stead to make the changes needed.

Questioning the Status Quo

Before we can take positive steps towards a more resilient future we must ask a number of questions and challenge our current assumptions. We must ask ourselves: What kind of future do we want? Are our assumptions about the future based on reality? Is there a systems thinking approach to what we do? What are the alternatives and what is possible?

There is no question Australia is a harsh and vulnerable nation. This provides opportunities, responsibilities and responses which build upon the challenges. Instead of continuing along the business as usual path, which will only exacerbate the problems and create greater vulnerability, we must all rethink our future.  We must shift our thinking, ideas of what we want and how we do things. One of the most intelligent and proactive initiatives which has come out of Australia as a response to some of the challenge is the work done by the late Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who created the Permaculture concept back in the early 1970’s.

Solutions Already Exist

Permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison, an Australian born researcher, author, scientist, teacher and Biologist, who examined how natural systems functioned. He came to the realisation that for society to survive and thrive there must be an alternative to the destructive forces of industrial agriculture. Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems. These systems have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.  In Mollison’s words, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

This is one a many concepts and methods helping facilitate building resilient local food systems. Methods and strategies which are thoughtful, diverse and more resilient are needed as we move into a more volatile and disruptive future. These will also help resolve and many of the environmental challenges we face while helping build local capacity, diversity and resilience. The way we farm and treat the land is a symptom of our broader societal values. As a society we need to reengage and look deeply within to have any chance of thriving into the foreseeable future. Only by rethinking the way we engage with the natural world can we move toward a more abundant, prosperous and resilient future...


Excerpts from Rethink...Your World, Your Future.

Sophie Gaballa Asha Bee Abraham, Food Miles in Australia: A preliminary study of Melbourne, Victoria. July 2007. Ceres Community Environment Park.

Drought could cost economy up to $12 billion, AAP, Aug 2018, https://finance.nine.com.au/2018/08/17/12/37/drought-could-cost-economy-up-to-12-billion

Nafeez Ahmed, ‘Peak oil, climate change and pipeline geopolitics driving Syria conflict.’ The Guardian, 13th May 2013.

Jared Diamond, Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Chapter 13, 2005.

Saul Eslake, ‘The economic impact of farm drought in rural Australia, Australian Institute of Company Directors, 27 September 2018 - http://aicd.companydirectors.com.au/membership/company-director-magazine/2018-back-editions/october/economist-the-big-dry

The collapse of the wide, brown land, Feb 2005. - https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/the-collapse-of-the-wide-brown-land-20050221-gdkrwy.html

Lesley Hughes, Will Steffen, Martin Rice and Alix Pearce- Feeding a Hungry Nation: Climate Change Food and Farming in Australia, 19 Oct 2015. https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/uploads/7579c324216d1e76e8a50095aac45d66.pdf

John Wendle, The Ominous Story of Syria’s Climate Refugees, Scientific American, December 2015.

Mollison, B. (1991). Introduction to permaculture. Tasmania, Australia: Tagari.

Oil and Gas Journal, ‘Fossil Fuels to Remain Dominant until 2035’, Oil and Gas Journal, October 2016. - https://www.ogj.com/articles/2016/02/bp-fossil-fuels-remain-dominant-form-of-energy-through-2035.html

George Monbiot, The Climate Crisis is Already Here, but no one is telling us, The Guardian, Aug 2016.

Richard van Noorden, More plants make more rain, Nature, Sept 2006. https://www.nature.com/news/2006/060925/full/060925-1.html



Images: Photos for Class, Creative Commons, Australian Institute of International Affairs