AS the new year unfolds, we take a look back at the issues that defined agriculture in 2014. This week, the climate challenges which continue to dog Australian primary producers into 2015:
Hot, damn hot
THE year of 2014 did not start well for Australia’s farmers, with rolling heatwaves preceding the Prime Minister’s declaration of the eastern drought as a natural disaster.
When agriculture in eastern Australia is in strife, an El Nino event is often the culprit – but this time, there was no El Nino, yet the drought stress on landholders through NSW and Queensland was already acute at the start of the year. What was going on? Bureau of Meterology (BOM) climatologist Lyn Bettio offered two answers: “heat” and “don’t know”.
With the weather more an issue in 2014 than it had been for a decade, the Bureau was also under pressure to deliver more accurate forecasts – something which had become increasingly difficult by spring.
Predicting an El Nino also remained elusive, but by September’s end El Nino-like conditions looked more likely than not to plague eastern and northern Australia through summer. However, BOM warned that El Nino effects only told part of the story.
"An El Nino doesn't have to be locked in for us to see El Nino-like effects,” said Andrew Watkins, BOM’s manager of Climate Prediction Services. By December, chances of a summer El Nino event had moved from 50 per cent to 70pc .
See no evil, hear no evil
The issues paper developed in March to inform the Agricultural White Paper had a curious omission: it didn’t mention climate change.
The absence of climate change from the issues paper indicated its architects didn't see climate change influencing agriculture into the foreseeable future – which was 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".
Yet despite increasingly tough climatic conditions, by June farmers’ production expectations had bounced to a three-year high.
With one eye on the long-term seasonal outlook and an apparent shift away from climate adaptation research by the federal government, agribusiness companies were carefully cautious about economic predictions for the rest of 2014. Rabobank recorded a big upswing in confidence after timely rain triggered a good winter cropping season start in many areas and market dynamics lifted for beef, sheep, grain and dairy producers.
However, come July the Abbott government was under pressure to implement an effective climate change policy which could successfully engage farmers in genuine projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While farmers were left wondering where the weather was, climate change sceptic and now-estranged Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore visited Australia in October for a “climate change information tour”. Tour organiser Case Smit predicted: “Patrick’s visit will affect the future climate change policies of our government and present an example to the world”. It did change a little that month, but not in the way Dr Moore intended – with the Abbott government reluctantly agreeing to climate change back on the agenda at the G20 summit in Brisbane following global political pressure.
More of the same for 2015
As the year closed on more scorching summer days, 2014 was declared by the Bureau to be the third hottest year on record in Australia - just 12 months after 2013 smashed annual highs – with no end to drought in sight.
Increasingly agricultural stakeholders moved to adopt plans to manage climate variability and called for long-term planning on the issue.
World Bank Group vice president Rachel Kyte told the Crawford Fund's annual conference in Canberra global agriculture requires a radical shift akin to a military about-face sooner than most people realise, in order to feed an exploding population while preventing dire social and environmental outcomes.
Her speech to agricultural heavyweights outlined a range of future and immediate challenges from global food waste to global warming. She said those challenges, spurred on by a growing population with a rising middle class hungry for meat, “are leading us down a dangerous path”.
“Unless we chart a new course, we will find ourselves staring volatility and disruption in the food system in the face - not in 2050, not in 2040, but potentially within the next decade,” she said.
“A business-as-usual approach to agriculture is no longer an option.”
Coming up: rural debt; drought.
What's driving the drought?
WHEN agriculture in eastern Australia is in strife, an El Nino event is often hanging around. This time, there is no El Nino, but the drought stress on landholders through NSW and Queensland is acute. What’s going on? >>>Read more...
Ag White Paper's gaping hole
THE issues paper developed to inform the Agricultural White Paper has a curious omission: it doesn't mention climate change. >>>Read more...
Farmer confidence lifts
WITH one eye on the long-term seasonal outlook, agribusiness companies have been carefully cautious about economic predictions for the rest of 2014, but farmer expectations have bounced to a three-year high. >>>Read more...
Engaging ag with climate policy
THE Abbott government remains under pressure to implement an effective climate change policy which could successfully engage farmers in genuine projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. >>>Read more...
Food security on the line
GLOBAL agriculture requires a radical shift akin to a military about-face sooner than most people realise, in order to feed an exploding population while preventing dire social and environmental outcomes. >>>Read more...
BOM's crystal ball goes cloudy
THE Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) is still expecting spring to be drier than average in many cropping regions, but says its confidence is relatively low due to a complex set of climate drivers. >>>Read more ...
Man in the middle on climate
GREENPEACE co-founder Patrick Moore visited Australia in October for a “climate change information tour” and to ventilate his views supporting the science underpinning genetically modified crops. >>>Read more...
El Nino taunts, records tumble
IF it feels like an El Nino, and looks like an El Nino, are we in an El Nino? Technically, no, but to all intents and purposes the effects that might be expected of the climatic event appear to be at work across most of the countries it affects. >>>Read more...