Richard McLellan: Gifting a sustainable food future requires a radical rethink

    At this time of year we’re accustomed to reflecting on the 12 months that have gone by and lining up our resolutions for the 12 months ahead. But Australia’s farmers will only get what we really want for Christmas — a productive, profitable and sustainable rural sector — if we start thinking not in years, but in decades.

    A decade doesn’t seem like a long time. But by the second half of the 2020s we’ll be experiencing some of the challenging climate scenarios that experts have been warning about for years — including in the recent report by the Climate Council of Australia Feeding a Hungry Nation: Climate Change, Food and Farming in Australia.

    Twelve years doesn’t sound very long, but my Dad could tell you how much productivity changed on our farm in the West Australian Wheatbelt in the 12 years immediately after he changed from teams of horses to mechanised tractors. Or after the introduction of superphosphate. Or how many more grey hairs he grew as the winter rains and run-off in Southwest Australia markedly diminished within 10 to 12 years in the 1970s.

    Fortunately, he and many other farmers across the WA Wheatbelt adapted to that change. Aussie farmers like my Dad have always been good at dealing with changing circumstances, and have been among the most innovative and adaptive in the world.

    But I’m not so convinced they’ll be able to keep-up with the speed, scale and intensity of the climate change impacts that are predicted to affect agriculture across Australia in the years ahead. As clearly spelled out in the recent Australian National Outlook report by CSIRO: “the types of adaptation that have previously served Australian farmers well may simply not be enough in the future.”

    Incremental change probably won’t be enough to address the immense challenges of a changing climate, or provide sufficient guarantees for the future sustainability of farms and rural communities. The authors of Feeding a Hungry Nation instead called for “Transformational Adaptation” (see chart below), which would require new farming products such as ecosystem services and wholesale translocation of farming sectors, and developing new skills for farmers; new markets and supply chains; and new infrastructure.

    From Feeding a Hungry Nation, p 56.

    I’m also convinced that only transformational change will be enough to ensure our agricultural sector survives, and indeed thrives — as we all want it to. To meet current and projected challenges of rising temperatures, increasing drought frequency, and water insecurity, paradigm shift is essential. Changes to stubble management will not be enough.

    The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) believes we need to go even further. It calls for “radical adaptation” involving comprehensive preparation for possible future scenarios and a “fundamental sector-wide re-think of policy.”

    Whatever you choose to call it, that’s pretty much the conclusion I’ve arrived at. Edging ahead with incremental change simply won’t guarantee a sustainable farming future. It’s time for a radical re-think.
    “Business as usual” and small-scale testing the waters are not solutions. Solutions need to be big and bold, and bloody quick.

    Farming has changed a lot in the past few decades, but this is nothing compared to the ‘radical’ changes needed to ensure our farming regions are still profitable and sustainable at the end of the century. Now is the time for a huge increase in investment in funds and ambitious policy change to prepare the country for a very different future.

    By all means, let’s keep up the incremental changes: new crops and varieties, rotations, minimum/no tillage, soil optimisation, and the like. But this won’t get us far unless we really start thinking, planning and acting longer-term to catalyse “new generation” diversified and sustainable farm income opportunities.

    Richard Facebook

    This must start with ambitious policy and economic incentives.

    Let’s provide the policy arena to drive a “clean and green” future.

    Let’s seriously invest in innovation, and in integrated research and development, policy and practice that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the agricultural sector. Let’s radically rethink our energy system — not only in terms of production but also in delivery and consumption.

    Let’s start paying farmers for investing in and protecting biodiversity, for foregoing land clearing, for providing ecosystem services, for sequestering carbon, for changing land uses and food production systems to what will be truly sustainable.

    Let’s stop simply reacting to drought, and instead incentivise real, long-term, climate-smart systems that can cope with our challenging environments and climates.

    Let’s provide sufficient government-supported funds and schemes — such as a climate-smart, “future fund”, paid for by a carbon tax or the diversion of current fossil fuel subsidies to help facilitate this outcome.

    Let’s invest in producers, supply chains and markets that are prepared to demand and trade in truly sustainable agricultural produce.

    Ultimately, let’s provide the policies and economic drivers that will ensure the Australian countryside is still filled with profitable, productive and sustainable farmers in a century’s time.

    We need farmers in the bush. They are potentially our “best-bet” resident bush conservation rangers and land stewards, and best-placed to manage our country’s natural assets while providing essential ecosystem services that benefit everyone.

    Richard McLellan is Chief Executive of the Northern Agricultural Catchments Council.