Making incremental changes to farming practices is no longer enough, the Outlook 2016 conference heard. Farming is rapidly moving into a climate unlike anything it has experienced before.
“Temperature is going up and up and up,” Dr Mark Howden of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute told Outlook.
“(Current average temperatures) are way above the temperatures that our agricultural practices were developed in. The minimum annual temperatures we’re experiencing now are round about the same temperature as the hottest years experienced by people who were farming in the 1950s.”
The risks of a warming climate can come from surprising quarters. Like frost.
During the southern Australian spring, high-pressure systems bearing masses of cold air have shifted southward over the past few decades, a result of global warming shifting weather patterns down the latitudes.
That has produced a much higher frost risk for certain regions. In places, the frost season has lengthened by more than 40 days since the early 1960s.
Most of the lengthening has come in spring. Crops were always vulnerable at this point, but warming also accelerates the maturing process of crops, increasing their vulnerability.
The operating environment for farming has now shifted so drastically that agriculture has to start making big adjustments, Dr Howden said. Changing in increments isn’t enough: it has to be at a systemic or transformational level.
“The basic theory is that if we don’t respond to the changes that are already happening, then we will either underperform, or we will incur increasing risk.”