Research and technology are laying the groundwork for a sustainable agricultural future, and Australia could be a global leader in the field. Without change, however, the country seems destined to miss its opportunity, Colin Chartres writes.
Farmers, backed by research and development, have been remarkably successful in ensuring food production has kept up with the global population increase over the last 60 years. However, there are still approximately 800 million undernourished people in the world and, worryingly, an increasing number – approximately two billion – of over-nourished, overweight and obese individuals.
These numbers are backed up by global individual calorie consumption, a number that has risen from 2200 calories per day to over 2900 calories per day between 1960 and 2019. Growing demand for food has increased land degradation and accelerated forest clearing and wetland reclamation, resulting in significant biodiversity decline. This is demonstrated by an unprecedented rate of species extinction.
Furthermore, the impacts of climate change are now drying our landscapes, increasing weather variability – through droughts and floods, for example – and presenting new challenges for farmers to deal with. This is happening while industry contributes significant quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, further warming the planet. The question is, can anything be done about this?
Just as Australia is in a great position to lead the way in transforming energy systems to carbon-neutral methods, it could also do so for food production, leading it to turn to more sustainable and climate-smart systems.
Climate change denial is not only damaging Australia’s international reputation but also limiting research funding that could shift agriculture to a carbon-neutral position. The opportunity to transform agricultural and food production systems exist, but in Australia, investment is currently inadequate.
There are several ways Australia can reduce the footprint of its agriculture sector on the environment. The first is carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is a system designed to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide in soil, and can reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
Some evidence shows that growth in this method in rural Australia could greatly reduce the country’s costs of mitigating climate change, and even favourably transform the economic prospects of large parts of the nation.
It has other benefits too. Whilst it is almost impossible to drought-proof all farms, there is a growing body of evidence that sustainable agriculture, including the sequestration of carbon in soil, can help to ‘insure’ farmers against dry conditions by improving water use efficiency. In good years, this could also increase profitability.
At adoption rates of 10-25 per cent in arable and rangeland environments, carbon-sequestering methodologies could offset 55-163 Mt CO2e (Million tonnes of CO2 equivalents) per year. Even at the minimum level, these figures are close to agriculture’s annual production of greenhouse gases.
This is great news. If farmers can increase soil carbon levels with this method, not only will it lead to more sustainable farming systems, but it may provide avenues for Australia to meet its Paris Climate Convention commitments. However, for this to happen, Australia needs policies that promote adoption of carbon-sequestering practices.
Another major issue for farming is energy use. Agriculture is both an emitter and potential sink for greenhouse gases.
Total emissions, excluding farm energy and transport use, were estimated at about 13 per cent of total Australian emissions in 2017.
These have been falling slightly in recent years, largely as a result of drought, but are projected to increase by about 1.2 per cent per year. When farm energy and transport are included, emissions are estimated at approximately 20 per cent of Australia’s total.
This problem has potential solutions too. Given appropriate policies and incentives, farmers could be ideally placed to use solar generation and battery storage to power farm equipment, irrigation pumps and, potentially, electric farm vehicles.
Recent initiatives in Western Australia have already seen some farms going off-grid with win-win outcomes for farm energy generation and reduced transmission costs for utility companies. Much more could be done in this area.
The final major change required is on the consumer, rather than the producer: diets. Reduced consumption and associated food waste has significant, health, environmental, and economic benefits.
A recent report on the issue detailed a wide range of actions that consumers and agriculture must take to enable us to live sustainably.
It noted that Australians throw out over 150kg of food per person per year – worth $3,800 per household – the majority of which ends up in landfill.
By transitioning to healthier diets and less waste, all Australians can contribute to a more sustainable agricultural system. Given that this requires significant modification of human behaviour, and that healthy foods are often not the cheapest options for poorer consumers, this is a difficult area to modify. It needs a concerted effort from the medical profession, nutritionists, and policymakers.
These areas are just a few of the opportunities that exist to reduce agriculture’s footprint and become more sustainable. Many have realised the advantages of investing in this area, but without action, the opportunity to participate in what could be a new agricultural revolution may pass Australia by.
The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research does maintain a link to international agricultural innovation, but much more is needed domestically, in terms of implementation of climate-smart solutions, for climate-smart food production and land management to prosper.
Policymakers can’t expect farmers to drive these changes without support. Besides, many of the outcomes of leadership in this area will be of national benefit, especially in terms of health, emissions reduction, and environmental sustainability.
Given Australia’s climate, the adaptive skills of its farmers, its scientific skill base, and its linkages to international agriculture, there is a real opportunity for the country to provide global leadership on sustainable food production methods. The question is whether the country has the foresight and political will to seize this moment.