The three Ps of climate change and agriculture

Climate change is only one of many pressures farmers will have to adapt to. Pete Hill

Opinions on anthropogenic climate change vary greatly across society, and it appears that Australia’s farmers remain largely sceptical about the causes of climate change.

Recent surveys show that only 28% of primary producers accept that human activity is the cause of climate change, compared to 58% of urban dwellers.

However, the science tells us that future agricultural production is at risk from climate change as well as being a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus agricultural producers face a complex challenge of adapting to an increasingly difficult climate, while simultaneously increasing production and lowering emissions in order to meet market and societal expectations.

Regardless of farmers’ beliefs on whether the climate is actually changing and what’s causing the changes, there are impacts that will need to be managed.

When communicating with farmers on these issues, it is often helpful to talk separately about the physical, policy and peripheral impacts of climate change. This allows the conversation to move beyond a discussion of purely physical impacts, where there is often much room for scepticism, and engage with imminent policy and peripheral impacts.

Thus we coined the term – the three Ps of climate change and agriculture.

The physical – rainfall and temperature

Reliable rainfall and predictable temperature ranges are critical to agricultural production. These are the very factors most affected by a changing climate. Proactively managing these changes will help reduce risk and therefore place farmers in a better position to adapt to a future climate.

Landowners may need to change the products they farm. Vivian Evans

Depending on the severity of change, farmers might need to adapt in one of three ways:

Adjusting current practices: These are incremental or component adaptations, small adjustments to the existing farming system, such as crop and pasture varieties or the timing of events on the farm. Many farmers are used to making these types of adjustments in response to climate variability, regardless of whether they see this variability as temporary or as a symptom of long term climate change.

Changing systems, products or markets: Systems adaptations could include a shift from singular cropping or grazing regimes to a mixed system that may be more flexible in increasingly variable or extreme seasons. Again we can see these adaptations already taking place on farms. During the drought in western Victoria, for example, there was an opportunistic expansion of grain cropping into areas that were previously too wet in winter to sustain cropping. Likewise, the northern Victorian dairy industry adapted their farming systems during the drought, moving from summer irrigated pastures to winter annual crops that are more efficient in terms of water use. In south western Australia there has been a clear decline in rainfall since the mid-1970s, yet wheat production has increased by 3.5% over the past 20 years, a rate of growth above the national average, largely as a result of research and adaptation by grain growers.

Transformational adaptation: This includes larger types of change and could involve new products, new industries or - for those without an emotional attachment to their land - moving the farm business to another region where the production system may be more viable. This has been demonstrated recently in the wine industry, with some companies responding to climate change scenarios by purchasing land in Tasmania. This is one area where attitudes to climate change will make a difference: they will determine whether farmers’ responses are proactive and effective, or left until too late, when adaptive capacity could be eroded to the extent that options become limited.

Changes are coming; the question is how farmers will adapt. Timothy D Johnson

The policy – pricing carbon and carbon farming

The policy impacts of climate change are becoming clearer with the Federal Government’s Clean Energy Future policies, the associated price on carbon and the Carbon Farming Initiative. The price on carbon could have indirect and unavoidable impacts on farm businesses, through increases in the costs of fertiliser, chemicals, fuels and power usage.

On the other side of the ledger, the Carbon Farming Initiative offers farmers an incentive to reduce emissions and/or store carbon. Unlike the carbon tax, participation is voluntary. The scheme offers landholders the potential to earn additional farm income to offset some of the increased costs due to the carbon tax.

While farmers may disagree about what is causing the physical impacts of climate change, they cannot avoid many of these policy impacts.

The peripheral – market changes and societal expectations

The peripheral impacts of climate change stem largely from societal responses to climate change. Peripheral impacts include issues like the changing demands of environmentally concerned consumers, eat less red meat campaigns and even the rise in popularity of local produce markets.

Peripheral impacts may influence how farmers market their products. They might market products as carbon neutral, use carbon footprint labelling, or sell produce at local farmers’ markets. This will certainly play a role in societal perceptions of farming and food production in the coming years. Astute farmers would be well advised to watch these developments for new and changing market opportunities.

A way forward

Separating the physical, policy and peripheral impacts of climate change on agriculture provides a useful framework for communicating with farmers, especially those who are sceptical of the science. Disagreement with the physical impacts or causes of climate change does not change the fact that there will be policy and peripheral impacts that need to be managed. Indeed, these may require a response from farmers sooner than the longer term physical impacts.

Significant research is now being conducted into mitigation and adaptation options for agriculture to manage a carbon-constrained future. It is important for farmers to remain abreast of the facts when it comes to the physical, policy and peripheral impacts of climate change. This will help them to strategically adjust their businesses accordingly, and thus maximise the opportunities and minimise the threats of this new operating environment.

Astute farmers are already adapting their farming system and business in response to climate variability and economic signals. Regardless of whether farmers agree over the causes of climate change, pro-active planning for a range of long-term impacts including physical, policy and peripheral issues will be critical to the success of farming operations in the future.

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