Farmers are some of the most innovative Australians - since 1970 they have lost 7.5% of arable land, but they’ve found ways to increase production by 220%. They’re also some of the most conservative, expressed in their reluctance to accept the science of climate change. So what will win as they face a changing climate: innovation or conservatism?
The agriculture industry has been developing for the past 10,000 years, but it could be argued that the biggest advances have come in the last 50 to 60 years. Since 1970, the world population has doubled, yet farming area has stayed the same.
Essentially farmers and the research that has supported them have been fantastic. A recent Conversation article highlighted this. But now agriculture faces, possibly, its biggest challenge: climate change.
Research in Western Australia found that over half (52%) were uncertain whether human-induced climate change was occurring. This is in sharp contrast to the 97% of climate scientists who agree that humans are causing global warming. Only 31% thought climate change represented a major threat to the future of their farm businesses. Results also showed that only 33% of all respondents found climate change information easy to understand.
In Western Australia since July 2010, the Farm Business Resilience program has, in part, been seeking to educate farmers about climate change. Before the initial sessions, farmers were surveyed by Chris Evans for their perceptions, knowledge and attitudes to climate change. Only 33% reported that they agreed climate change was occurring and just 19% believed climate change was human induced. Surveys at the end of the course assessed perceptions, knowledge and attitudes again, now showing that 80% of the farmers understood the impact of climate change and variability change on their businesses.
This was a staggering improvement, considering the difficulties that communicators face when they’re trying to correct misinformation. Numerous social studies have found misinformation is notoriously difficult to dislodge and debunking myths can sometimes have the effect of reinforcing them (known as the backfire effect). The backfire effect is particularly potent when presenting climate science to conservative audiences. If myths are not replaced with an alternative, plausible explanation, their influence can persist like returning weeds.
The key to the program’s success came down to knowing how to contextualise information. An example is that most scientists present science to the public but fail to make their knowledge understandable. The authors know how important it is to explain that information and doing so in a program like this allows clear explainations and discussion. The advantage of speaking with farmers about climate is that they live and breathe it. Million dollar business decisions often hinge on seasonal outlooks, so farmers usually have a good knowledge base to work with.
So why is it important to educate farmers about climate change? Because successful farming is really important. Need proof? Don’t eat for a week.
Even without climate change, farmers have a lot to deal with in the next few decades. There are pressures on productive land from:
There are also social and political pressures for chemical usage, access to technology and production practices. The current debates over access to GM technologies and use of pesticides are just two examples of social pressures on farming. There are also the ever-present economic pressures, as returns decline and costs increase – the cost price squeeze.
Under all of this pressure, agriculture has to supply increasing food demands, all while climate change is forcing down productivity. Given that most of the world’s agriculture is rainfed (73%), agriculture has a lot to lose with changes in rainfall resulting from climate change.
A recent article on The Conversation highlighted how little people outside of agriculture know about where and how their food is produced. It is important for everyone to understand how modern agriculture works, to see the science and technology that is involved. Just as farmers need to know about climate change and how it will impact them, the wider community has to understand what agriculture needs into the future.
Without community support, farmers will not have access to the latest technologies, trade agreements will be jeopardised and production will leave our nation without needed food security. And without more knowledge about farming, the wider public won’t understand proposed strategies for agriculture under climate change.
So the agriculture industry needs to be involved in an informed discussion of its future. Having farmers and the wider public meet will also help non-agricultural people understand where their food comes from and how it is produced. The better this link between producer and consumer, the better the industry will be. Through programs like Farm Business Resilience we can improve agriculture. But it can’t stop there: if farming doesn’t come to grips with climate change, it will affect us all.
This article was co-authored by Tim Scanlon. Tim is a scientist who is primarily involved in the agriculture industry as an extension specialist. His current focus is in climate change extension to rural Australia as part of a national program being trialed in Western Australia.