Global warming to hurt Australian agriculture

by Neena Bhandari

Sydney, Feb 9 2001 (IPS) -- The heavy floods and bushfires that Australia has experienced this summer are only a preview of what climate change has in store for the country.

Indeed, changing weather patterns in the coming years due to the gradual warming of the Earth will affect agricultural-based businesses and communities the most, says a report released here Thursday called ‘Climate Change and Agriculture in New South Wales: The Challenge for Rural Communities.’

The 187,240 proprietors and partners and 311,148 employees in agriculture are on the frontline, facing the adverse effects of rising temperatures, reduced access to water, higher salinity and frequent and intense droughts and floods.

“Climate change is already having a severe impact on agricultural production, which will only aggravate in the coming decades. Heavy tornadoes lashed the Murray Valley (in the south) as recently as Feb.  4,” said Tim Fischer, a federal member of Parliament from Farrer.

The report, based on research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), says how climate change in the next 50 years will decrease water resources, increase temperatures, reduce area of arable land, cut livestock output and affect crop quality.

In short, the effects of climate change are very real and will affect people’s everyday lives and livelihood, experts say.

Agriculture plays an important role in Australia’s economy. The gross value of agriculture commodities produced in 1998-99 was A$28.8 billion (US$15.8 billion), according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  Principal crops grown here include wheat, barley, grain sorghum, maize, oats, and rice. Besides fruits, there are oilseeds, sugarcane, cotton, peanuts, tobacco, legumes and crops cut for hay.

“Climate change will cause greater competition between farmers for decreasing water supplies and productive lands,” said Kathy Ridge, executive officer of the National Conservation Council of New South Wales, in south-eastern Australia. “This will drive up costs of agricultural produce and put further stress on rivers and ground water systems supporting arable lands,” she explained.

Previous reports, like that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have said Australia’s location puts it at more risk of agricultural problems due to rising global temperatures, caused by the production of ‘greenhouse gases’ such as carbon dioxide coming from industrial and power plans.

Australia’s relatively low latitude makes it particularly vulnerable through impacts on its scarce water resources and crops now growing near or above their optimum temperatures, notes the IPCC report.

The IPCC draft report forecasts temperature increases of 0.8- 3.9 degrees by 2050 and a 20 percent reduction in rainfall. Water flows in the crucial Murray Darling basin could fall by as much as 35 per cent by 2050.

This would cause a loss of up to 30 percent in Australia’s agricultural economy, it says. A reduction of another six to 23 percent is expected in the agricultural economy of the Macquarie River Basin. Losses are predicted in beef, wool, wheat and cotton.

The rise in carbon dioxide levels is expected to cut wheat protein levels by up to 10 percent. Drier conditions would reduce milk yield from cows by four percent, pasture productivity by 15 percent and weight gain in cattle by 12 percent, adds the report.

These mean that Australia must act to cut down greenhouse gas emissions, even while the government has been cool to setting reduction targets in the latest round of global talks.  “Farmers will begin to lose agricultural productivity due to climate change in the next three decades if fossil fuels are not replaced with renewable energy, such as solar and wind power,” warned Peter Mullins, a farmer and chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

At the last round of negotiations on climate change in the Netherlands, in November, Australia joined with the United States, Japan and Canada in shirking their responsibility to curb greenhouse gas emissions by relying on ‘carbon sinks’—trees, farmland and other vegetation that soak up carbon dioxide.

Using carbon sinks is being presented by these countries as a way countering global warming by having vegetation to take up carbon dioxide—instead of getting industries to actually cut down on emissions.

Research shows that increased temperatures will alter crop seasons, increase dairy and beef cattle heat stress and introduce new pest and disease occurrences, besides increase the southward spread of cattle tick and buffalo fly.

Dr Gerhard Berz, head of geo-scientific research at the world’s largest reinsurer, Munich Re, warns that Australia will be one of the worst-affected countries by global warming.

Berz predicts that the global insurance bill for extreme weather events and rising sea levels may rise tenfold to $290 billion a year by 2050.  Frequent extreme weather events, such as the hailstorm which devastated Sydney in April 1999, are likely to make some parts of the country uninsurable, he warns.

The impact of the El Nino weather phenomenon, wildfires, cyclones and hailstorms, with their tremendous loss potential, could exceed the financial capacity of the insurance industry.

Worried, some farmers are demanding action to address climate change as an election issue this year.

John Cobb, president of the New South Wales Farmers Association, said:

“Climate change is obvious, but farmers have adapted to relevant changes in the weather through centuries and will continue to do so.”

Cobb, who has been in farming for 30 years, pointed out: “There are more recorded disasters now. Floods and droughts have greater consequences because of higher concentration of people and intensive farming.”

Some farmers also worry about a knee-jerk reaction from the government after the CSIRO report.

While the CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology and the Australia Greenhouse office are putting in up to 10 million Australian dollars (5.5 million dollars) in research, most of the funding is going for monitoring past climate changes to try and establish that the early predictions were real.

“It is early days regarding how climate change is going to affect specific regions in the world,” Kay Abe manager of Greenhouse Inventory and Science said.

But Anna Reynolds of the Climate Action Network Australia added: “We need political commitment from the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase funding for native revegetation of salinity affected lands and halt land clearing”