Scientists tell farmers to act on climate change

By Jeanette Severs

THE SCIENTISTS were the rock stars at the Climate Risk in Agriculture conference, held at Warragul in June. Under discussion was how to build on-farm resilience around climate change and what are the risks and opportunities for doing nothing in the future.

Farmers attended from western, northern and north-east Victoria, southern NSW and across Gippsland, along with environmentalists, scientists and government bureaucrats. It was obvious the future of food production is in the hands of farmers who are aware of and developing risk profiles around climate adaptation for their agribusinesses.

Dr Andrew Watkins, from the Bureau of Meteorology, set the scene with a description of increasingly dry winters across the eastern states.

“By 2030, the Traralgon climate is likely to resemble Bathurst now. By 2050, it will resemble Wangaratta’s current weather pattern,” he said.

“By 2090, Traralgon’s topography and climate will resemble the current conditions at Mudgee.

“They’re not exactly two towns I would have put in the same basket. Australia will have drier middle months of the year.”

Frosts are likely to be more severe and drier conditions are likely. Meteorologists and climatologists worldwide are confident they are able to forecast weather modelling and conditions as far forward as 2100.

“There’s no debate about climate change, it’s here: it’s now up to us as a society how we go from here,” Dr Watkins said.

“So we should be debating how we’re going to deal with and manage climate change and its impacts.

“Soils are drier, so when rain falls it’s more likely to be sucked up rather than run off into storages and creeks and rivers,” Dr Watkins said.

“So expect less runoff from catchment areas into rivers and storages.”

That was the theme that pervaded the day.

Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute’s professor Mark Howden shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. His message was even more blunt.

“The Australian government and industry are failing to meet our agreed global emission reduction targets,” Prof Howden said.

“Climate change is not new science, there’s a history of predictions that go back before 1850.

“At the moment, we’re heading to a 4 to 5 °C temperature increase, rather than the goal of 1.5 to 2 degrees.

“The traditional runoff of rain into dams in Western Australia was 330 Gl. The current real-time scenario is 50 Gl.

“The climate change forecast scenarios of 2040 are already happening. The impact will be felt in agriculture, where we’re already seeing a 20 per cent drop in production.”

He called on the Federal Government to openly acknowledge climate change, but warned that the rest of us needed to focus forward without waiting for government.

“We need to grow up and focus on climate adaption for Australia and globally,” Prof Howden said.

“Farmers have lots of solutions at their fingertips — they are adaptable and adopters of change and they are strategic decision-makers. They are hampered in adaptation because some solutions haven’t been invented or developed yet.”

Prof Howden advocated for a value systems approach, involving farmers, food processors, logistics operators, transport and institutions. He encouraged farmers to get off the farm to learn about climate change.

“Find a physical locality that already reflects the change predicted for your district. Go and visit it and learn from the local farmers how they manage that environment, climate and weather systems,” he said.

“Be brave enough to seek your information from many sources. You’re seeking major change. If we don’t make change, we’re going to damage ourselves and our country.”

Prof Howden called for a price on emissions and for bipartisan intergovernmental responses to climate change that were integrated with institutional leadership.

His view was supported by the last speaker of the day, Charlotte Turner, of Minter Ellison, who focused on the financial and legal risk of climate change and the liability risk of failing to move to a carbon neutral business situation. She discussed how banks and insurance companies are already viewing agribusinesses through a risk lens that included whether the farmer’s business plan addressed climate adaption strategies and weather impacts.

She used soil compaction — resulting from changed rainfall patterns and drought — as an example of risk.

“With uncertainty comes risk and with risk comes loss and liability,” Ms Turner said.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier. In Australia’s eastern states, we have already experienced increased short- and long-term flood risks. Extreme heatwaves have a significant impact on agriculture.

“If the bank doesn’t feel the farmer understands these impacts, they won’t want to loan money for business development or land purchase. It’s about vulnerability to risk and capacity to repay loans. What would be the impact of water scarcity on clients’ vulnerability?

“Insurance companies and banks are already assessing the risk of increased heatwaves resulting in compacting soil and inland flooding; and, along eastern and southern coastlines, storm surges and land eroding into the sea.

“By 2100, sea level is projected to rise by 0.8 m above present day levels.”

She warned loans would be differentially priced based on the farm’s location risk and contain triggers for the farmer to achieve regular sustainability targets.

Ms Turner said investment companies were already actioning shareholders’ environmental concerns, by demanding proof of how global emissions reduction targets were being addressed along value supply lines.

Businesses were already shifting their priorities to be attractive to future employees who brought environmental and social concerns with them as part of the conditions of employment. She said these future employment trends were already happening.

“Institutional investors are driving change — they want their money to be safe,” Ms Turner said.

The University of Melbourne’s Richard Eckard summed up the need for action in his presentation, focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture while growing productivity.

“Government needs to lead but because they are at the tail-end of change and particularly policy change, we need to expect the supply chain to respond to targets,” he said.

He warned that Meat and Livestock Australia’s recent carbon neutral announcement for the industry contained codicils that relied on government leadership to change policy.

He applauded with caution New Zealand’s recent announcement of a zero carbon emissions goal, which differentiated between carbon dioxide and methane gases.

“For dairy farmers, productivity goals need to focus on breeding more efficient cattle, with increased fertility and improved utilisation of pasture and feed,” Dr Eckard said.

“The Holy Grail is a lower methane-producing animal. We can reduce emissions by 50 per cent now, compared to 50 years ago, using current technologies.

“If farmers don’t want to change, then consumers will make them.”

Two dairy farmers were part of a farmer panel at the Climate Risk in Agriculture conference. They spoke about how they were addressing the need to initiate climate adaptation changes on their properties.

Clydebank dairy farmer, Sandra Jefford, talked about the innovations she and Wilco Droppert had initiated on their farm and were further researching and implementing, with an eye to weathering climate adaptation. They milk 340 cows.

“Our reliable rainfall stopped in 2016. Because half of our farm is dryland, pasture growth is slow,” Ms Jefford said.

The rest of the farm is irrigated using three centre pivots, fed by bores.

“It takes a lot of energy to get that water out of the ground. We had an energy audit in 2017 and installed solar power at the dairy shed,” Ms Jefford said.

“We're inspired to do more on the farm focused on energy reduction.”

They also realise they spend a lot of time checking on bores and pivots. Motivated by the need to learn about available technology, the couple have visited other farms and researched the information and people who can address their concerns.

“The question we have asked ourselves is, how can we be carbon neutral? We audited our pasture, learning about plant diversity, soil health and nutrition for the cattle.

“We are learning a huge amount and it's enjoyable.

“One of the plants we value very highly is chicory. We found if we let it go to seed, we get good regeneration,” Ms Jefford said.

Having grown maize as a monoculture, they are now learning how to grow it as part of a multispecies crop.