The persistence and severity of the current drought affecting much of Australia, coupled with the fearsome arrival of bushfires now categorised as ‘catastrophic’, has not only generated new debate about the perceived and real emergence of climatic extremes but is raising some existential questions about the future direction for Australian agriculture and some hard social and economic questions about food and fibre security in the coming decades.
It would appear that seasonal climatic extremes are affecting many parts of the globe and many informed individuals and institutions believe that the trends will continue.
Some respected researchers believe that the global nature of climate change suggests that any measures to mitigate emerging problems should include tackling the global level of fossil-fuel related emissions, rather than try and handle emissions on a country by country basis.
A worthy view but experience of past international co-operation suggests that the suggested global goal would be akin to herding cats.
So, how do we in Australia, assess and respond to all the things that are worrying us today; drought – and its consequent problems for agriculture; water management, energy production, food production and distribution, trade, and much more?
Recent reports from ABARE on the drought impacts in south-eastern Australia show that farm cash incomes have fallen sharply for broad-acre properties.
Some more fortunate zones, producing hay and feed grains, have clearly done well and better prices for sheep, lambs and wool have meant better returns for some in the sheep industry.
Obviously, river-dependent irrigators in NSW have felt the full weight of the cruel drought. The dairy industry too has suffered in NSW.
The severe effect on the drought in this region may be seen in the assessment of Rural Land Performance 1990-2008 when, despite the-then recent drought, the North West region showed the highest annual capital return at the lowest volatility of $7.11 per cent. A sign of optimism!
Now, it may be that farmland will continue to retain value – as long as conditions allow it to be productive – but it is evident that a host of new factors may have to be taken into account by farmers, researchers, governments – and consumers.
Climate change and water availability must just be two.
Ordinary consumers may have to learn greater awareness as to where their food and fibre comes from.
The issue of food waste, for example, has been highlighted in recent television specials but earlier this century it was revealed that in the United States alone something like $US43 billion per year of edible food was being discarded.
The current set of extreme conditions in this country may have us worried – but it should not stop us from thinking how we can better respond to what may be a more uncertain future.