OPPORTUNITY for Australian agriculture exists among the climate change challenge, but a lack of research scientists is putting our competitive edge at risk.
The national research effort falls about 80 scientists short of what is needed to deliver practical advice to industry on our uniquely variable climate, according to the Australian Academy of Sciences.
“It’s not much use for a farmer to know that Victoria will get warmer, with less rain, if their farm is more likely to be flooded,” said University of NSW oceanographer Professor Trevor McDougall, a world leader in his field who co-authored the Academy’s Australian Climate Science Capability Review.
“We have a pretty good understanding of the influence of the large scale impacts from climate change, across eastern Australia or southwest Western Australia for example, but very little skill in understanding how climate change impacts on a small scale.
“If every business adapts to the forecasts of large scale impact in the same way, there will inevitably be winners and losers. We need finer resolution forecasts so business can start adapting sensibly to climate change.”
The review trawled the ranks of research institutions and government agencies. It found all up Australia has 420 climate scientists in total, the majority sprinkled across various university departments and about 100 each in the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO.
Prof. McDougall said the ability to make accurate, local climate projections was “no-longer a pipedream”, but Australia must keep pace with the rapid advancements of our competitors.
Climate modelling is “critically under-resourced” and 30 new modellers are needed in the next four years to keep pace with world’s best practice, he said.
“If we don’t get this up and going we could soon have another country that can model our future better than we can. For example, if the U.S can model our wheat production better than us, we are going to be screwed on the international market.”
The cost of 80 new research positions (roughly $16m in salaries and expenses a year) was justified by a range of benefits, Prof. Mcdougall said.
The National Irrigators Council represents producers who rely on climate projections for critical decisions on water trading and annual plantings.
Council chief executive Steve Whan said he was concerned by the warning over climate modellers and he “looked forward to a positive response” to the report from government.
“Modelling is needed regardless of the Government of the day’s position on climate change,” Mr Whan said.
“That’s why we would join in being concerned about a conclusion that suggests that Australia will fall behind other major agricultural producers in the quality of projections available to agriculture.
Australia’s investment in southern ocean research encouraged the U.S and European countries to grant us access to their satellite data. “We couldn’t even predict the weather without that,” Prof. McDougall said.
“The U.S has a lot of satellites, which each cost $300,000 and all they want from us in return for access is data we generate so they can groundtruth their instrumentation and models.”
A study cited in the Academy’s review highlighted agriculture's economic payoff of from climate modelling.
Private consultant the Centre for Independent Economics delivered the Analysis of the benefits of improved seasonal climate forecasting for agriculture report in 2014. It was commissioned by the Grains, Rural Industries and Sugar Research Rural Development Corporations, as well as Meat and Livestock Australia.
The report found the potential value of improved seasonal climate forecasts to the ag sector is $1.6 billion a year, not including benefits for rural communities.
The value of improved seasonal climate forecasts that could be realised through optimising fertiliser application in Western Australian wheat enterprises was estimated at between $418 million and $780m a year in Australian dollars, based on 2012 commodity prices.
The study, which qualified its forecast for livestock citing limited information available on enterprises across the sector, estimated the value in the range of $158 to $438m, while cropping could realise benefits from $800m to $1491m.
The report also estimated the value of perfect rainfall predictions for a range of production areas.
For example, the cotton-sorghum system in Dalby, Queensland would benefit to the tune of a 14 per cent to 19pc lift in gross margins; Moree, NSW summer cotton would lift from 44pc to 71pc; and Western Australian wheat-sheep operations would benefit $66 tonnes per hectare of additional gross margins.
Climate research funding has been controversial for the Coalition government. Prime Minister Tony Abbott sliced $115m from CSIRO in his 2014 Budget, with cuts targeted at climate research. Around 300 jobs were culled in 2016.
Prof. McDougall said the climate scientist rebuild should be filled progressively over the next four years.
“You can’t create these people to fill roles out of nowhere, you need training.”