Australian farmers have coped with challenging conditions and weather extremes for many years. However, their ability to continue is being tested by the rapid changes brought about by climate change. These changes are experienced differently across the country, mirroring the great diversity of farming practices used in the vast continent. While the 87,800 agricultural businesses recorded with the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2021-22 cover an average size of 4,300 hectares, farms range from 8,000 hectares in Western Australia to just 200 hectares in Tasmania. Across the country, 369 million hectares of land produce a range of crops, including canola and wheat, while producing over 22 million cattle and 70 million sheep and lambs. The most common crops are beef, wheat, sheep, milk, and poultry, accounting for 70% of the agricultural product value in 2018-19. Smaller farms are found in the horticultural and dairy industries, while larger farms engage in cropping or the beef cattle industry.
Figure: Snapshot of Australian Agriculture 2020. Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
Australian farmers face many new challenges and opportunities due to the changing climate. According to ABARES, the average temperature in Australia has increased by about one °C since 1950, and winter rainfall has declined by about 20% in southern Australia since 1970. These trends have reduced the profitability of Australian farms by about 22% on average over the period 2000-2019. However, some regions and industries have been more affected than others. For example, cropping farms in Western Australia have experienced a 56% decline in profit due to climate change, while beef farms in northern Australia have experienced a 3% decline. Given the substantial projected declines in winter rainfall, cropping farms face more challenges than other farming types. The most significant will be felt by farmers on the northern edge of the Western Australian cropping zone, central Queensland, and central/western NSW.
Figure: Map of the effect of recent (2001 to 2020) seasonal conditions on farm profit. Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. ABARES Insights, issue 3, 2021, p.2
To cope with the impacts of climate change and maintain or increase their yields, Australian farmers have adopted various adaptation strategies, resulting in continued farm productivity increases over time. Most of these strategies revolve around improving farm performance under drying conditions. Farmers have been able to change crop varieties or livestock breeds to suit the local conditions by switching to more drought-tolerant or heat-tolerant crops or animals. They have also adjusted the timing or location of planting, harvesting, or grazing to avoid frost or heat stress. Adaptation to dry conditions has also been achieved through improving water management and irrigation efficiency. These include swapping flood irrigation to drip irrigation systems and installing soil moisture sensors to reduce water losses and increase water productivity. These practices have been successful. For example, wheat yields under dry conditions have increased by 14% since 2007-2008, while Western Australia’s 2020 winter crop harvest far exceeded expectations.
Figure: Map demonstrating the percentage change in farmland set-up for cropping, 2016-2020 relative to 2006-2010. Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. ABARES Insights, issue 3, 2021, p.9
Australian farmers have sought to adapt to the unique Australian environment for many years, and their efforts to adapt to climate change build on this existing knowledge. Many farmers seek to use practices such as reducing tiling to conserve topsoil, retaining crop stubble, or applying organic amendments to improve soil structure and fertility. Some farmers have also sought to diversify their offerings and add value to their products through processing, marketing, or off-farm work or investment. However, despite this culture of adaptation, there are limits to what can be achieved as climate change’s effects accelerate.
Agricultural researchers are helping to support farmers’ adaptation capacity by enhancing technical knowledge of sustainable farming practices. For example, researchers are examining the role of plant genetics in building resilience to changing agricultural conditions. They are also investigating the feasibility of new land use activities such as carbon reduction, biodiversity conservation, and renewable energy generation, which may provide financial opportunities to farmers as conditions restrict traditional cropping or livestock viability.
However, to continue this adaptation capacity in the future. These include an increase in the availability of data to support drought insurance markets, which help farmers manage long-term exposure to drought risk. Increased research on new commodities or non-traditional farming activities is also required, as these will increase farmer’s ability to adapt to climate change and increase production productivity. In addition, farmers may need technical and financial support to stop current practices, further exacerbating climate change’s negative impacts. For example, farming comprises 13% of the nation’s annual carbon emissions while leading to a range of negative impacts on the environment, such as:
- Ongoing deforestation resulting from land clearing for agriculture,
- Water pollution from farm runoff,
- Soil degradation, erosion, salinity, and acidification from overgrazing and monoculture cropping, and
- Biodiversity loss from invasive species, habitat reduction, and destruction of food webs.
While Australian farmers have demonstrated substantial capacity to adapt to challenging farming conditions in the past, they have made limited progress in addressing the existing well-known negative impacts of Australian agriculture on the broader environment. Successful adaptation to climate change requires both pathways. As a result, Australia’s farmers’ ability to adapt how they farm can be rated as a C: Standing Still.
This post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Robyn Gulliver.