REUTERS SUMMIT-Australian agriculture needs to adapt, not simply shift, to meet climate change

by Reuters
Wednesday, 15 October 2014 09:00 GMT

A wheat crop grows at a farm near Parkes, 221 miles (357 km) west of Sydney, July 7, 2011. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

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Peanuts have moved north, tuna east and wine south, but new places to shift production will run out

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By Jane Wardell

SYDNEY, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Peanuts have moved north, tuna has moved east, wine has moved south.

But sooner or later, Australia is going to run out of places to shift agricultural production to avoid the harsh effects of climate change.

Australia's flagship scientific body told the Reuters Global Climate Change Summit on Wednesday that it is therefore critical for companies to consider both mitigation and adaption measures now.

"We have to act very soon on mitigation, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and adaptation," the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's (CSIRO) Science Director for Climate Adaption Mark Stafford Smith said in an interview in Sydney.

Climate change is a major threat to food security in a country that has talked about becoming a "food bowl" for Asia. It also complicates a government plan to increase agricultural production to meet an expected doubling in global food demand by 2050.

As the only developed nation dominated by an arid climate, Stafford Smith said, Australia faces more variability in rainfall, prolonged droughts and a greater incidence of extreme weather events.

The government-funded CSIRO is working with a range of industries and companies on a number of adaptation strategies.

Treasury Wine Estates Ltd and other wine companies are testing underground irrigation systems, developed with CSIRO, in their vineyards in response to increased levels of evaporation.

The agency is also working with cereal farmers to experiment with new grain varieties better able to cope with higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The average global temperature has warmed by more than 0.7 degrees Celsius over the past century, and the present warming rate is 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Australia is heating up even faster - a joint Bureau of Meteorology-CSIRO State of the Climate 2014 report found current temperatures are, on average, almost one degree Celsius warmer than they were in 1910. Most of this increase has occurred since the 1950s, suggesting an accelerated warming trend.


The need to adapt is reflected in the varying success Australian industries have had in making a straightforward geographical shift.

Wine companies are benefiting from the purchase of vineyards in the tiny island-state of Tasmania. Prompted by ever hotter and drier conditions to find alternatives to the country's traditional wine growing regions on the mainland, they are now growing different varieties in the cooler southern climate.

Tuna fisheries in the Southern Ocean have shifted further east as sea temperatures rise, initially moving them closer to ports and other infrastructure. But if they continue to chase warmer waters east, they will move further away again.

A lack of infrastructure was the downfall of a move by peanut growers from central Queensland to the tip of the Northern Territory. Growers moved north to take advantage of the mix of sun and higher rainfall, but high transport costs and mould hampered their efforts.

The Peanut Company of Australia abandoned its plans for large-scale production in the far north in 2012, selling its property after just five years on the land to a sandalwood producer.

The peanut industry is looking at trying again, but this time it is setting the stage with a trial crop to try and find a new variety of peanut for the northern climate.

Stafford Smith said it is that kind of innovation rather than simply shifting geographies that Australia needs to pursue - and could potentially export to others, given the country is at the forefront of responding to climate change.

"Australia has a comparative advantage in dry-land agriculture and on the natural resources side," he said.

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