Farming in a risky climate

Katie McRobert

“People ask if I believe in climate change – no, I say, I’m an Anglican.” Lucinda Corrigan’s quip at the AFI’s recent mid-year conference on ‘Farming in a risky climate’ not only elicited a laugh from delegates but also resonated on social media, including a retweet from billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes.

The point Lucinda made about scientific evidence not requiring belief ran throughout the conference sessions and keynote speech. Presenters, panellists and delegates focused not on “if” but “when and how” to respond to the risks posed to agriculture by climate change.

Strong themes emerged across the two days, notably that action on climate impacts to and from agriculture is imperative, and that policy must support systems which reward farmers to actively protect the natural capital underpinning the sector.

AFI Executive Director Richard Heath opened the conference by reading from a letter written to The Land, which noted:

“The idea, altogether too prevalent in Australia, that the land can be exploited for quick cash returns must give place to one of conservation and vision if we are to … hold it for future generations. The restoring of soil fertility by the return of organic matter to the land – forestry, water, soil and fodder conservation are in the forefront of the problems facing us.”

Written by his great-grandfather Arthur Heath in 1941, this letter illustrated that protecting natural capital is not a new issue for Australian farmers. “This conference is themed as if I were writing that letter to The Land today,” he said. “What are the existential risks to agriculture and how can we deal with them?”

Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management David Littleproud also addressed delegates in the opening session. Minister Littleproud noted that profit and loss is intrinsically linked to the environmental stewardship of farmland and addressed the need for agriculture to embrace its role in environmental solutions. Keynote dinner speaker Hugh Killen, CEO of AACo, discussed the ongoing viability of agribusiness in the face of climate change.

With agriculture identified as one of the sectors most exposed to adverse climate change impacts both in Australia and globally, a new AFI research report on defining the need for an Australian agricultural climate change strategy was also discussed. The report, Change in the air, (1) focuses on the biophysical impact on natural capital and the need for policy to address this concern.

The conference, held in Brisbane on 26–27 June, featured six sessions across two days covering the changing climate, adaptable farming systems, a climate of trust, changing biosecurity frontiers, climate risk and farm business, and managing water resources.

More than 30 speakers and panellists – representing farmers, community leaders, researchers, business managers, communicators and sector advocates – participated in the event. Each session on the program featured primary producers, with diversity in representation and opinion a strong focus of the agenda. Speakers’ presentations (2) and media coverage of the event are available on the AFI’s website. (3)

The Australian Agriculture Roundtable on 15 October will further develop discoveries from the mid-year conference by addressing the topic ‘Valuing agriculture’s natural capital’. Visit farminstitute.org.au for details and bookings. This topic will also be explored in the spring 2019 edition of the Farm Policy Journal, available in mid-September to AFI members and subscribers or by individual purchase.