Climate change a massive threat to food security, agriculture

Written by: Jason Thomas 6 OCT 2015 – 4:16 PM  UPDATED 7 OCT 2015 – 9:06 AM

Australia can expect climate change to make food more scarce and expensive in the future, a new report from the Climate Council says.

Climate change will threaten Australia’s food security and drive up the prices of foods, a report out today says.

The Climate Council’s report, Feeding a hungry nation: climate change, food and farming in Australia, says the agriculture industry has suffered and will suffer in future as Australia’s climate continues to change.

Rising temperatures and lower rainfall have already affected crop yields in areas of southern Australia, and yields will continue to be affected, the report said.

Greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, like bushfires, droughts and cyclones will lead to decreased productivity across the agricultural sector, including the livestock and dairy industries.

The prospect of reduced agricultural production is a big issue for Australia, where the gross value of all agricultural commodities produced was roughly $50 billion for the calendar year ending June 30, 2014.

The agriculture, forestry and fishing sector employed 2.8 per cent of all employed Australians in August 2014, and represented 2.4 per cent of real gross value added to Australia’s economy in 2013-14, data from Austrade reveals.

Some agricultural commodities – wheat and frozen, chilled or fresh beef – are in Australia’s top ten exports.

Australia has also enjoyed strong food security throughout history, with more agricultural exports than imports historically.

Note: food includes processed items, like bread and beverages.

But rising temperatures, more cyclones and bushfires and less available water in coming years could disrupt that security, the report says.

Australia’s exports will also need to cope with a growing population of Australians.

The report’s lead author, ecologist Professor Lesley Hughes from Macquarie University, said Australia had a lot of skin to lose as the world’s climate continues to change.

“We export about 65 per cent of our food production,” Prof Hughes said.

She said Australia had always been a nation with a high amount of food security, but Australia was the developed nation most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“We’re the driest inhabited continent,” Prof Hughes said.

“That’s getting worse and will get worse. We’ve got good data on heat waves getting longer, getting hotter and getting earlier in the year.”

Data on climate change, like this chart below, can be found on the Bureau of Meteorology’s portal on climate change data.

Prof Hughes is a councillor for the independent Climate Council, formerly the Climate Commission until the Abbott government abolished the government body in its first days of government.

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 export – Climate Council report

A peak farming association, Grain Growers Australia, said farmers were concerned about climate change, but farmers have already been responding to challenges like drought and seasonally variability.

“We’re just always looking at ways of managing seasonal variability,” spokesperson, Laureta Wallace said.

The Climate Council’s report says 50 per cent of Australia’s agriculture sector is irrigated, and the supply of available rainfall is set to decline.

However, Australian farmers are becoming more efficient with their water use, data from the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) reveals.

“Between 1982 and 2012 more than half of Australia’s wheat-growing regions have improved their WUE [water use efficiency] by at least 50 per cent,” the GRDC report says.

“Many areas have achieved even more than this.”

Young farmer, Joshua Gilbert, works on the family cattle stud in Nabiac NSW.

He is the chair of Young Farmers, a sub group of the NSW Famers Association.

Mr Gilbert said farmers had already been dealing with the challenges of climate change without necessarily knowing what to call it.

However, many farmers are recognising that changing conditions on their land are due to climate change and some were making steps to protect their farms from the effects, Mr Gilbert said.

“I guess what we’ve seen is there is a lot more knowledge from younger farmers,” Mr Gilbert said.

Young farmers: why do young people choose to live on the land?
Why do young people choose to become farmers in this day and age?

He said seasonal variability, including the unknowns of rainfall and extreme weather events, have been affecting farmers for years.

The long term changes to the climate would worsen this variability, as farmers could expect more droughts and bushfires in future, the Climate Council’s report said.

SBS contacted the Australian Livestock Exporters Council and the National Farmers Federation, to ask if they were concerned about the effects of climate change on Australia’s agriculture sector. Both were unavailable for comment.

Key findings of the Climate Council’s report:

Climate change is making weather patterns more extreme and unpredictable, with serious consequences for Australia’s agricultural production

  • Climate change is driving an increase in the intensity and frequency of hot days and heatwaves in Australia, changing rainfall patterns, increasing the severity of droughts, and driving up the likelihood of extreme fire danger weather.
  • Average rainfall in southern Australia during the cool season is predicted to decline further, and the time spent in extreme drought conditions is projected to increase.
  • Water scarcity, heat stress and increased climatic variability in our most productive agricultural regions, such as the Murray Darling Basin, are key risks for our food security, economy, and dependent industries and communities.
  • Climatic challenges could result in imports of key agricultural commodities such as wheat increasingly outweighing exports.

More frequent and intense heatwaves and extreme weather events are already affecting food prices in Australia

  • Climate change is increasing the variability of crop yields.
  • Food prices during the 2005- 2007 drought increased at twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) with fresh fruit and vegetables the worst hit, increasing 43 per cent and 33 per cent respectively.
  • Reductions of livestock numbers during droughts can directly affect meat prices for many years.
  • Rainfall deficiencies in parts of Western Australia and central Queensland are projected to reduce total national crop production by 12 per cent in 2014-15, and the value of beef and veal exports by 4 per cent.
  • Cyclone Larry destroyed 90 per cent of the North Queensland banana crop in 2006, affecting supply for nine months and increasing prices by 500 per cent.
  • The 2009 heatwave in Victoria decimated fruit crops, with significant production losses of berry and other fruit crops.

Climate change is affecting the quality and seasonal availability of many foods in Australia

  • Up to 70% of Australia’s wine-growing regions with a Mediterranean climate (including iconic areas like the Barossa Valley and Margaret River) will be less suitable for grape growing by 2050. Higher temperatures will continue to cause earlier ripening and reduced grape quality, as well as encourage expansion to new areas, including some regions of Tasmania.
  • 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.
  • Heat stress reduces milk yield by 10-25 per cent and up to 40 per cent 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.

Australia is extremely vulnerable to disruptions in food supply through extreme weather events

  • There is typically less than 30 days supply of non-perishable food and less than five days supply of perishable food in the supply chain at any one time. Households generally hold only about a 3-5 day supply of food. Such low reserves are vulnerable to natural disasters and disruption to transport from extreme weather.
  • During the 2011 Queensland floods, several towns such as Rockhampton were cut off for up to two weeks, preventing food resupply. Brisbane came within a day of running out of bread.

Australia’s international competitiveness in many agricultural markets will be challenged by the warming climate and changing weather patterns

  • 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.
  • Climate impacts on agricultural production in other countries will affect our competitiveness, especially if warmer and wetter conditions elsewhere boost production of key products such as beef and lamb.

If the current rate of climate change is maintained, adaptation to food production challenges will be increasingly difficult and expensive

  • By 2061, Australia’s domestic demand for food could be 90 per cent above 2000 levels, with a similar increase in export demand.
  • Transitioning to a new, lowcarbon economy is critical to avoiding the most dangerous impacts of climate change.
  • The longer action on climate change is delayed, the more likely it is that progressive, small-scale adaptive steps to cope with climate change will become increasingly inadequate and larger, more expensive changes will be required.