As world leaders meet in Paris to set a target to reduce carbon emissions, scientists and farmers fear even the ambitious aim of limiting global warming to two degrees would have huge impacts on Australian farm production, leading to more expensive food prices.
Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University and a councillor on the independent Climate Council, has examined the impact of global warming on Australian farming and says two degrees of warming creates real risks.
“(It’s) very dangerous for agricultural production, 2.7 degrees is even more dangerous, though, on the bright side it’s still considerably safer than the four to six degrees that is what we are heading for currently on our emissions trajectory,” Professor Hughes said.
She said more extreme weather conditions linked to global warming, including longer droughts and more intense cyclones, were already affecting food production, and increasing the price consumers pay.
Drought sends food prices higher
“Food prices during the drought, during 2005 to 2007, went up quite substantially,” she said.
“For example fruit went up over 43 per cent in price and vegetables over 33 per cent.
“Of course fruit and vegetables both have very significant requirements for water, in many cases irrigated water, and when that wasn’t available, fruit and vegetable production declined and therefore fruit and vegetable prices went up.”
Professor Hughes said droughts also affected meat prices.
“The typical pattern during a drought is that at the onset of a drought and in the early days people de-stock, they sell off and so meat prices can decline because the market is full.
“Then if a drought goes on for a very long time, meat prices start to rise because stock is somewhat limited, and then even when a drought breaks there is a bit of a time lag because farmers then take a while to get stock back up to previous numbers.”
Ms Hughes said predictions for future climatic conditions in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin food bowl, which produces an estimated 40 per cent of Australia’s food crops, were dire under global warming projections, with a warning that by 2030 the region was likely to be considerably warmer and drier, with two to five per cent less annual rainfall.
She said production of wheat, Australia’s largest agricultural export commodity, worth about $9 billion to the economy in an average year, was likely to face a volatile future, with cropping seasons affected by lower rainfall and warmer days.
“What we are looking to in the future is in many years Australia to be a net wheat importer, rather than an exporter, with commensurate impacts on the economy,” Professor Hughes said.
Global warming being felt on the farm
New South Wales farmer Peter Holding is already seeing the impacts a warming climate is having on production on his property at Harden, in southern New South Wales.
“What’s happening is we’re losing the autumns and springs and the weather we’re having tends to be more extreme,” Mr Holding said.
“We’re getting less rain, that’s not such a big issue for us because we are in a high rainfall area.
“The real issue for us is increasing temperature. Once wheat goes over about 28 degrees, or especially over 30 degrees, for extended three or four days, the crops just fail and that’s a serious problem.
“If we get into that situation where that sort of spring occurs regularly, I suggest that a lot of cropping is going to be in big trouble.”
Farmers adapting to changing climate
While Mr Holding’s property enjoys reasonable rainfall, further south in Victoria’s Wimmera Mallee region where conditions are more marginal, Birchip farmer Ian McClelland predicts two degrees of warming will force a change of farming systems.
“People will have to certainly adjust to a different system,” Mr McClelland said.
In his region rainfall in the growing season has decreased 25 per cent over the past 20 years and in recent years extreme heat and frosts have taken a toll on crops.
“Strangely enough, they say with climate change we are going to get more frosts, and more heat stress as well, because the skies are going to be clearer and there are going to be more high pressures.”
Professor Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council says a great deal of research work is focussed on supporting farmers and agricultural industries to adapt to a changing climate, but she predicts it will only go so far.
“There will come a time when in many regions, many of the climatic extremes will be simply too great to adapt to,” Professor Hughes said.
And farmer Peter Holding worries what the future will be for regional areas when that time arrives.
“It seriously concerns me that we’ll lose the population in rural New South Wales, or rural Australia and I really don’t think that’s going to be good for Australia if we start to move everybody back to the major centres.”