A climate of opportunity in Ag

When the rules change in Australian Football, the teams that adapt best win out. The same principal applies to farmers and our changing climate, where change, while disruptive, comes with an opportunity for a competitive advantage.

Farmers heard about this opportunity at the 2021 Ag Excellence Forum in Adelaide. The forum featured opening keynotes from Professor Mark Howden, Director of ANU’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, and Fiona Simson, President of the National Farmers Federation (NFF).

Professor Howden opened the forum by describing how climate change has reduced the global average agricultural productivity by 21% over the past 60 years, effectively losing the last seven years of growth. Drought is modelled to become much worse, with more summer rain which is less effective due to bigger falls and more run-off, while season-to-season variability is likely to increase. His message was that climate change is happening and it will impact tremendously on Australian agriculture.

While this isn’t good news, it does offer opportunities.  Food prices and trade are likely to increase due to variability in supply. So those that can think strategically, adapt and establish a competitive advantage will benefit.

The question is how to adapt? Professor Howden says it depends on your values. Options are highly contextual and how you splice them together is up to you.

“Firstly, be really clear about what you want. That’s about your values, aspirations and goals. Ultimately you may not be able to get everything you want, but that’s part of the process.”

Professor Howden believes focusing on existing systems may miss opportunities. Instead, growers should consider more transformational adaptations. He suggested 10-15-year plans that are based on the new climate, not the old one, that also considers what you farm into the future. For example, solar farming is now considered safer and easier money by some compared to farming.

“I would read widely and talk to others with different viewpoints. Break out of the bubble that you may be in. Ultimately, you’re still going to have to make the call but having other input into that decision is going to help.

“Think about what your specific comparative advantages are, not just now but over the next 10 or 15 years. What is it that sets you apart? How do you think you can win?

“And lastly, put together a practical plan, talk to others about it and then monitor. Put together that data and then evaluate and communicate. If you’ve got good stories, tell them. If you’ve got things that didn’t work, tell others, so you can progress individually and as an industry.”

Part of the adaptation also involves reducing farm emissions. National Farmers Federation (NFF) President Fiona Simson outlined the NFF’s climate change policy which supports an economy-wide target of net zero emissions by 2050, provided there are economically viable pathways and both effective and equitable government policies. Like Professor Howden, Ms Simson can see potential benefits in how we adapt and grow export markets, but believes there are currently more questions than answers when it comes to measuring or retaining soil carbon, accounting for methane emissions and biodiversity outcomes and developing global standards to compare performance against competitors.

However, she thinks farmers should be engaged and proactive.

“A lot of farmers are making 10-year plans, building on the knowledge that they are farming in an increasingly erratic climate. We can’t tell from year to year whether it’s going to be wetter or drier just as we never can, but we do know what the trend is.

“Arm yourself with as much information and data and try and work in agility and diversity to your business. People need to be looking at the options available.”

“Scientists like Mark are absolutely sounding the alarm about the urgency of global action, but we are very much at the beginning of understanding how this is going to work for agriculture in Australia. We may or may not have exactly the right systems and methodologies in place. So, there’s no particular urgency for farmers to be rushing in, locking in parts of your land to do certain things. This is the time to be gathering information, to be assessing your business and your skills. It’s about you, it’s about other people in your business, it’s about where you want to go and about what your values are, and taking the time to plot out the path with some of this knowledge we have. That is the real take home message. We are not at the end of this race, we’re right at the beginning, and this is the time to decide how you’re going to participate.”

Full presentations can be viewed on this link under Plenary: Opening Keynotes, with Professor Howden speaking from 9 minutes to 40 minutes and Ms Simson talking from 41 minutes to 1 hour and 12 minutes.

Also see this article on International Drivers of Carbon Neutrality and how farmers can respond that was presented by Professor Richard Eckard during opening keynotes.

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