research report

Change in the air: Defining the need for an Australian agricultural climate change strategy

Climate change is a ‘wicked problem’ representing not only a threat to the Australian agricultural sector’s profitability and international competitiveness but also to our long-term food security and the viability of some regional communities.

The agriculture sector is both vulnerable to and partially responsible for the heightened challenges brought about by climate change. To minimise the severity of projected impacts of the warming trend caused by increased greenhouse gas levels, the sector has an imperative to continue efforts in emissions mitigation and to accelerate cross-industry progress.

Both in Australia and internationally, agriculture is identified as one of the sectors most exposed to adverse climate change  impacts. While the effects of climate change will impact all sources of the agriculture sector’s stores of value, a new research report by the AFI focuses primarily on the biophysical impact on natural capital and the need for policy to address this concern.

A serious threat exists that without significant, systemic change to adapt practices and to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, Australia may not be able to maintain agricultural productivity to a standard which upholds food security in the region.

Climate-induced reductions in Australian agricultural production will also erode export competitiveness, especially if warmer and wetter conditions elsewhere boost production of key products such as red meat. As an export-dependent industry, the projected increase in food demand combined with the likelihood of reduced production rates and increased supply chain disruptions exponentially raise the sector’s risk exposure.
With 48% of Australia’s land privately owned or leased for agricultural production, Australian farmers have both a social obligation and an economic imperative to care for this natural capital. However, upholding this stewardship grows more difficult and more costly as climate change impacts both the health of the natural environment and farmers’ financial capital stores.

Adaptation to a changing climate could potentially provide alternative financial opportunities for farmers (via ecosystem services payments or transition to renewable energy sources) while promoting natural capital protection and regeneration. For example, recent modelling reported a net economic benefit for the agriculture sector in transitioning to a low carbon economy.

Much like water management – particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin – the impacts of a changing climate are seen to be everyone’s problem but nobody’s responsibility. Programs exist and new initiatives are underway to support farmers to use more energy efficient equipment, incorporate land-use changes such as revegetation, and adopt new farming practices. However, while an increasing proportion of Australian farmers are adopting practices which integrate soil, water and vegetation management, incremental changes alone will not provide the sector-wide resilience needed to function sustainably within a changed natural system.

To date, cohesive strategy to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and facilitate improved resilience in agriculture is either absent or notably immature in Australian policy.

A successful climate adaptation and mitigation policy for Australian agriculture must be underpinned by research into the practices that are working in this scenario, identifying the priority gaps where action and strategic policy are needed, and ensuring appropriate resources to extend successful practices rapidly and extensively.

This report does not seek to set out an adaptation plan for the sector, nor is it a comprehensive review of existing plans and strategies. Rather it interrogates the need for a national strategy on climate change and agriculture and offers direction for the industry’s next steps on this issue within relevant local and global frameworks.

This project was supported by Farmers for Climate Action and is available for download.