Ag White Paper's gaping hole

01 Mar, 2014 03:00 AM
Temperatures are rising, and generally temperatures do bad things to crops.

THE issues paper developed to inform the Agricultural White Paper has a curious omission: it doesn't mention climate change.

The White Paper is intended to guide agricultural policy in the long term. The absence of climate change from the issues paper indicates that its architects don't see climate change influencing agriculture into the foreseeable future.

That is at odds with most experts in climate, and those working at the interface of climate and agriculture.

In the 2011 CSIRO report, Climate Change: Science and Solutions for Australia, scientists Chris Stokes and Mark Howden wrote that "There is a national imperative to equip Australian agriculture to be prepared to adapt to climate change".

That sense of urgency has disappeared with the Coalition government. Since it came to power, a senior scientist told Fairfax, research on climate change adaptation "has effectively closed down".

By contrast, Australia's major competitor in global commodity food markets, the United States, is investing heavily in climate change adaptation.

The US Department of Agriculture's 2014 proposed budget includes US$98 million earmarked for programs researching interactions between climate change and agriculture.

In a mid-2013 speech, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Visack said, "... the fact is, across America, farmers and ranchers and forest landowners are seeing the beginning chapter of what will be a long-term challenge posed by a changing climate".

"This problem is not going to go away on its own. That's why America must take steps now to adapt."

David Lobell, a Stanford University environmental scientist who was in 2013 awarded a US$600,000 MacArthur "genius" grant to further his work on the effects of climate change on food production, calculates that climate change has already clipped 10 per cent from global farming productivity growth over the last decade or so.

"Temperatures are rising, and generally temperatures do bad things to crops," Dr Lobell told Fairfax during a recent visit to Australia.

"So as the impacts become more negative, we need to better understand what we can do to reduce those impacts."

Australian records show clear warming trends. The nation has just recorded its hottest year on record, which was preceded by a run of historically warm years. Heat records are being broken at a rate three times the breaking of cold records.

Heatwaves are increasing, according to a recent report by the Climate Council, both in number of days and intensity. Heatwaves are making very hot days even hotter.

Rainfall patterns are shifting, bringing a drying trend to south-western Australia, later autumn breaks in south-eastern Australia, wetter conditions in the north-west.

These trends all take a toll on agricultural productivity, agricultural scientist Snow Barlow says, in ways that are more subtle than just heat effects.

Professor Barlow is convenor of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, and professor of Horticulture and Viticulture at the University of Melbourne.

For instance, he said, the risk of frosts are increasing as warmer conditions dry soil moisture profiles faster in spring. About 600,000 hectares of crop across southern Australia was hit by frost during the spring of 2013.

This will present a growing challenge to graingrowers, Prof. Barlow said, who will need to increasingly finely judge ripening between the growing risk of frost and the growing risk of heat.

The interplay of effects of a changing climate is especially visible in viticulture.

In southern Australia, vintages have moved forward about a day a year over the past quarter-century.

"That gives you a double whammy," Prof. Barlow said.

"The idea is to ripen grapes in the cooler autumn months to develop the flavours.

"In the Coonawarra, they've shown that by bringing ripening forward a month you're ripening at a temperature four degrees higher for every degree of warming, because you're ripening in an earlier month.

"In general, agriculture is going to be operating in an environment of increasing climate risk. We need to be thinking about policy that addresses this environment."

David Lobell thinks policymakers tend to approach policy development from the wrong end. In his experience, they want to know the regional effects of climate change, so they can promote certain agricultural ventures.

But science's skill in forecasting climate change effects at regional scales is limited, Dr Lobell said.

Instead, policy would currently be more usefully focused on a country's overall ability to grapple with a more variable, hostile climate with measures like better irrigation infrastructure.

An enquiry to the office of Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce about the absence of climate change from the issues paper has not been answered.

Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


1/03/2014 8:53:09 AM

If 97% of the engineering community told you that a bridge was unsafe and likely to collapse and should not be crossed would you cling to the opinion of the 3% minority and cross that bridge ? That is essentially what is happening in the climate debate.
T Bone
1/03/2014 1:16:17 PM

Well said Matthew Cawood, we can't ignore the reality of climate change any more. This drought has been made much worse by extreme heat. We need to work out ways of adapting, but we also have to tackle the cause - namely the burning of fossil fuels. We need a serious plan to roll out renewable energy to replace coal fired power stations, and we need to face the reality that investing in more coal export infrastructure is liable to be a waste of money, when our customers stop buying the stuff.
1/03/2014 3:43:02 PM

Why spend valuable dollars on climate change when as farmers we are continuously refining farming practices to adapt to all kinds of management pressures. Remove all the govt interference and we will handle what nature throws at us. All we are doing is feeding the climate bureaucracy instead of freeing up market access opportunities and providing a scenario for farmers to get on with the job they know better than anyone else. Profitable farmers will adapt to any climate changes that may occur, no profit no ability to implement change. Get out of the way and let us get on with the job.
Chick Olsson
1/03/2014 11:58:26 PM

Sorry Matthew, most of the "experts" so far have really no idea what is happening to the planet, now realising its even too hard to predict the weather next week.
2/03/2014 5:18:26 AM

Farmers and graziers are too busy surviving the extra-ordinary hardships of this drought to focus on the strategic opportunities of this policy document. Seems Australia may not be an island after all - when it comes to climate induced weather variability. Great work Matt
2/03/2014 2:44:19 PM

Autumn break 2014....1st March??????
Frank Blunt
3/03/2014 9:51:15 AM

Hard to believe it but there are still people who think climate change be it hot or cold , good or bad is all caused by burning fossil fuels and want to go take us down that path to green nirvana and economic oblivion. All backed by their imaginary 97% of scientists , talk about total insanity.
3/03/2014 9:55:46 AM

Once upon a time it was hard-line communists refusing to accept science, and the doctrinaire genetics of Trofim Lysenko became official Soviet policy. This set back Soviet science by a generation. Today, in Australia, it's the anti-science capitalist right, insisting on business-as-usual, who are putting profits before prudence. It must be difficult for them to ignore the views of the: IMF, World Bank, insurance industry, scientific institutions, USDA, and Australia's own world-class scientists who have been studying climate for decades. And memo to Chick Olsson, don't confuse climate with weather.
Frank Blunt
3/03/2014 12:16:10 PM

So now according to one Nico anyone who refuses to believe in what his version/view of science is, is a hard line communist. The sheer absurdity of this line of thinking is ignorant , frightening and astounding . First we are deniers ( a reference to holocaust deniers) now we are communists. One wonders who the anti-science capitalist right are ? The side that won the last federal election with a mandate to get rid of the useless destructive carbon dioxide tax ? Is Tony a communist Nico ? Perhaps there are some more nasty communists under your bed Nico.
Frank Blunt
3/03/2014 1:00:05 PM

So the cold they are having in America ( the coldest winter ever are the reports ) is not part of the climate and we can just ignore it because its just the local weather and the rest of the planet is heating up at a frightening pace according to those who still think the earth maybe flat.
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You had better check your sources ATB!
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I couldn't think of anything more painful or fruitless than sitting on a board that does not
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I've said this before but if farmers are not happy with their CBH Board they should put up or