Australia is uniquely vulnerable to climate change due to its inherent geographic and climate characteristics. Compared to other countries, Australia is more likely to experience issues such as increased temperature extremes, heatwaves, droughts and natural disasters.[i] These will in turn have a major impact on its agricultural sectors and overall environmental health. However, as a wealthy developed nation with strong governance and institutions it is also in an advantageous position to implement a variety of climate adaptation strategies and increase the resilience of its population to these challenges. Through adopting a proactive, climate-oriented and environmental justice focus in its agriculture, land management and water management policies, Australia has the potential to manage the significant pressures of climate change while also contributing to sustainable development and enhancing the recognition of Indigenous rights and leadership by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Overview of climate change and agriculture in Australia
Climate change impacts
Climate change is beginning to have a vast and growing impact on Australia’s natural environment and ecosystems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that Australia is likely to be at particular risk of increased desertification due to a combination of hotter temperatures, evapotranspiration and decreased overall rainfall in a modified climate.[ii] The number of hot days each year across the country are becoming more frequent and severe; 2019 was recorded as the hottest year yet with an average temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than the long-term average and Australia’s single hottest day on record. The warmer temperatures have been coupled with extreme droughts, as well as Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season in the spring and summer periods over 2019-2020. In addition, south-eastern Australia is expected to see decreased seasonal-average rainfall and increased drought periods. The effects of warmer average temperatures, reduced rainfall and increased bushfires are severe and wide-reaching, resulting in the drying of river systems and degraded water quality, depleted groundwater supplies, decreased soil quality, vegetation decline and increased biodiversity loss.
The implications of a changing climate for Australia’s agricultural sector are therefore significant. Annual crop production will be greatly impacted in many areas; especially in the wheat growing region of south-eastern Australia as reduced rainfall is especially likely to occur during the peak winter-spring growing season; and these drought-prone areas are also likely to expand in size in future.[iii][iv] Additionally, poorer soil quality will result in greater levels of water run-off. Problems with pest and weed species will also increase, further threatening fragile cropland and grazing zones at risk from heatwaves and storms; while livestock will also suffer higher levels of heat stress, leading to reduced productivity.[v]
These climate impacts on Australian agriculture are of significant concern, as the sector is an important component of the national economy, provides food security to Australia’s population of 25 million people, and is essential to the livelihoods of many people in rural and regional communities. Agriculture currently accounts for nearly 60 percent of total land use and water extractions in Australia; forming 14 percent of national exports, 2.7 percent of GDP and 2.5 percent of employment in 2016-2017. Furthermore, the value of the agriculture sector together with fisheries and forestry has increased in real terms by 34 percent in the last twenty years to a total worth of around $66 billion in 2017-2018. Wheat and beef are the largest commodities; with other plant crops, horticulture and animal products also forming a significant portion of the industry.[vi]
Sustainable development and agriculture
There are increased international calls to transform agriculture and land management practices to enhance resilience to climate change and support sustainable development. The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 2 which is to ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’ advocates for sustainable agriculture, climate adaptation, land restoration practices and sensible water management to promote increased agricultural yields and ensure greater levels of social equity, economic productivity and improved population health. The UN also notes the vital role that traditional farmers play in improving local agricultural systems through their knowledge of sustainable management of soils, land, water, nutrients, pests and organic fertilisers.[viii] Accordingly, in Australia there is growing recognition of the merits of traditional Indigenous knowledge of the land and the need for a collaborative approach to environmental management, which is discussed further on.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2 similarly suggests that knowledge sharing, along with capacity building, technology, increased monitoring, and greater investment in human capital and institutions could help to bolster climate adaptation in agriculture and land management and provide development co-benefits. The IPCC notes that despite initial investment costs, sustainable land management practices and technologies are often quite profitable in less than ten years through benefits such as increased crop yields; and regenerative land management practices often show immediate benefits through enhanced environmental services. The IPCC also suggests a broad reframing of land management in risk management terms, to assist land managers with building their capacity to cope with sudden and ongoing climate-related challenges.2
However, despite global policy advocacy for climate adaptation in agriculture, the current policy in Australia is strongly lacking in this area and is mostly reliant on individual farmers and volunteer land managers who receive some government funding.[ix] For example, non-profit organisations such as Landcare Australia advocate for community-led land management in partnership with governments, as well as resilience and sustainability within the farming sector, environmental restoration and biodiversity conservation. Australian scientific bodies such as CSIRO also provide some resources and assistance to Australian farmers to undertake practices such as integrated pest management and life cycle assessments.
While these types of community-based natural resource management are increasingly seen as an important component of strong environmental governance [x], Australia would also benefit from more substantial government input and investment into sustainable agriculture. The following sections therefore outline important areas for policy reform and concurrent community action in Australia to improve climate adaptation in the agricultural and land management sectors and enhance related social outcomes.
Indigenous land rights and management
European colonisation of Australia initiated sweeping changes in land management practices across the country. Extensive land clearing for the purposes of grazing pastures and cropping has occurred since this time, contributing significantly to a total loss of 44 percent of Australian forests and woodlands.[xi] Moreover, there is also an established link between this land clearing and increased climate extremes in eastern parts of Australia such as longer and more severe droughts.[xii]
Subsequently, there is growing awareness of the damage that traditional European land management methods have done to the Australian environment and the benefits to be gained from looking to the traditional management regimes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for future practice. Indigenous Protected Areas where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can practice traditional methods of biodiversity conservation are now established across 67 million hectares of Australian land, making up nearly half the National Reserve System, and providing significant environmental and social benefits.[xiii]
The introduction of native title rights in Australia also signalled a recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a right to their land based on their unique connection to country that is foundational to traditional Indigenous laws and customs. This connection is part of the concept of caring for country, which pertains to the unique understandings, cultural connections, and custodial responsibilities that Indigenous people in Australia have towards their land. As part of caring for country, Indigenous land management groups in Australia have demonstrated a special ability to manage ongoing issues such as bushfires and weed infestations, as well as improving carbon sequestration and stimulating other important ecosystem benefits.[xiv]
Despite these positive improvements, there is no formal policy in Australia that permanently and substantially incorporates Indigenous land management into sustainable, climate-resilient agriculture. Instead, Indigenous land managers are often employed on a temporary, consultative basis. which belies their knowledge, abilities and status as the traditional custodians of the land. Therefore, a policy transformation is needed, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land management groups are given leadership roles in Australia’s environmental management, and Indigenous people are also employed by the federal, state and territory governments on an ongoing, high-level basis to engage in cross-cultural and cross-sectoral collaboration for land management that is responsive to climate impacts, increased disaster risks and other environmental stressors. Such policies need to include provisions for the education of private landholders about local Indigenous land management resources and encourage relationship building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous community stakeholders. This policy proposal is in accordance with expert recommendations for the effective merging of Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge in land management in Australia.[xv]
Future paths for land and water management in Australia
In addition to recognising the values of Indigenous knowledge for land management in Australia and transferring this into tangible policy actions, a number of other changes are needed to Australian agriculture and natural resource management to ensure it can continue to thrive in a country experiencing greater and more frequent temperature extremes, droughts, disasters and an altered ecological environment.
Water security is an ongoing issue in Australia. This has been highlighted in recent years by the severe drought in New South Wales and the severe drying of some catchments in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) leading to mass fish kills and devastating local farmers. The MDB is Australia’s most significant river system, covering one million square kilometres of south-eastern parts of the country and servicing over 9000 irrigated agriculture businesses, which use the largest portion of the resource. However, the MDB is under rising pressure from climate effects and human use, and although there is a shared adaptive management plan between the basin states that is designed to moderate water allocations and withdrawals, there is an urgent need for further policy action that reflects the unique challenges presented by a changing climate and which aligns more with the precautionary principle for risk management.[xvi]
Further attention to issues such as the equity and overall sustainability of the management plan for the basin is also warranted. The MDB services both large-scale industrial agriculture and individual farmers, and there have been concerns that the former is monopolising the resource, often for the purposes of growing thirsty crops such as cotton. It was recently discovered that top government officials in New South Wales were aware of illegal floodplain harvesting in the MDB by major irrigators over a period of decades, which has denied water to other irrigators and communities downstream.[xvii] This implies a significant need for greater accountability and transparency processes in the basin’s management.
Another issue for policy attention is that of water trading in the MDB. Although water trading schemes such as that which occurs in the MDB can enable climate adaptation on some fronts and allocate water to the highest-value uses (determined using traditional economic frameworks), they also have limitations such as the potential for environmental damage and the deleterious social effects on groups that are alienated from accessing water resources due to such schemes.[xviii]Therefore, water management policy in Australia needs to focus more on effectively balancing economic principles with social equity issues, especially as rural communities grapple with water scarcity and insecurity exacerbated by climate change.
Furthermore, a greater embracing of Indigenous leadership and management would once more be beneficial. There are more than 40 Aboriginal nations located within the MDB providing a strong foundation for local traditional knowledge, and there are increased calls for direct engagement with Indigenous people in managing the basin as primary stakeholders.[xix]
Altogether, water policy reforms are closely tied to the general need for further innovations and smarter forms of land management and agriculture in Australia. For example, improvements in irrigation technologies and infrastructure should be paired with the planting of more drought-resistant crops and boosted land cover to help lower surface temperatures and contribute to more stable rainfall. The use of regenerative agricultural practices such as tree planting, reducing soil tillage, rotating crops and increasing the use of organic fertiliser can also help improve soil and water quality, thereby also reducing water use. Regenerative agriculture also helps to protect biodiversity, and contributes to lower emissions. Lastly, ensuring there is increased monitoring of land and water quality, knowledge-sharing and capacity building among stakeholders should be an important policy focus, as per the IPCC recommendations outlined earlier.2
Australia faces immense challenges on many levels as the impacts of climate change continue to take hold. Its diverse agricultural sector, although long-accustomed to the existing harsh climate, is one of the first industries to confront these new impacts at the ground level. Without an urgent, comprehensive and agile policy response to issues such as severe drought, bushfires and ecosystem decline, Australian agriculture is unlikely to sufficiently keep pace with development needs such as food security, social equity and economic prosperity. However, through incorporating global sustainable development principles and a special focus on engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in natural resource management, the vast challenges are likely not insurmountable.
[i] Hennessy, K. (2011). Climate change impacts. In H. Cleugh., M.S. Smith., M. Battaglia. & P Graham (Eds.), Science and Solutions for Australia (45-57). CSIRO.
[ii] IPCC. (2019). Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Retrieved from: https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/chapter/summary-for-policymakers/
[iii] CSIRO. (2020). Climate change information for Australia. Retrieved from: https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/OandA/Areas/Oceans-and-climate/Climate-change-information
[iv] Feng, P., Liu, D.L., Wang, B., Waters, C., Zhang, M. & Yu, Q. (2018). Projected changes in drought across the wheat belt of southeastern Australia using a downscaled climate ensemble. International Journal of Climatology, Vol. 39, 1041-1053.
[v] Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. (2020). Climate change impacts in Australia. Retrieved from: https://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/climate-science-data/climate-science/impacts
[vi] Jackson, T., Zammit, K. and Hatfield-Dodds, S. (2018). Snapshot of Australian Agriculture. ABARES Insights, Issue 1. Retrieved from: https://www.agriculture.gov.au/sites/default/files/abares/documents/snapshot-australian-agriculture.pdf
[vii] Wheat-sheep zone – Agricultural and Grazing Industries Survey, 2016, ABARES; Land use of Australia, 2010–11, ABARES
[viii] United Nations. (2020). Food security and nutrition and sustainable agriculture. Retrieved from: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics/foodagriculture
[ix] Williams, J. (August 12, 2019). Australia urgently needs real sustainable agriculture policy. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/australia-urgently-needs-real-sustainable-agriculture-policy-120597
[x] Addison, J., Stoeckl, N., Larson, S., Jarvis, D., Bidan Aboriginal Corporation, Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC, Ewamian Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC, Gooniyandi Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC, Yanunijarra Ngurrara Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC and Esparon. M. (2019). The ability of community based natural resource management to contribute to development as freedom and the role of access. World Development, Vol. 120, 91-104.
[xi] Metcalfe, D. and Bui, E. (2016). Regional and landscape-scale pressures: Land clearing. Australia State of the Environment 2016. Retrieved from: https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/land/topic/2016/regional-and-landscape-scale-pressures-land-clearing
[xii] Deo, R.C., Syktus, J.I., McAlpine, C.A., Lawrence, P.J., McGowan, H.A. and Phinn, S.R. (2009). Impact of historical land cover change on daily indices of climate extremes including droughts in eastern Australia. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 36.
[xiii] Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. (2020b). Indigenous Protected Areas. Retrieved from: https://www.environment.gov.au/land/indigenous-protected-areas
[xiv] Hill, R., Pert, P.L., Davies, J., Robinson, C.J., Walsh, F. and Falco-Mammone, F. (2013). Indigenous land management in Australia: Extent, Scope, Diversity, Barriers and Success Factors. CSIRO. Retrieved from: https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/download?pid=csiro:EP124759&dsid=DS5
[xv] Ens, E.J., Finlayson, M., Preuss, K., Jackson, S. and Holcombe, S. (2012). Australian approaches for managing ‘country’ using Indigenous and non‐Indigenous knowledge. Ecological Management and Restoration, Vol. 13(1), 100-107.
[xvi] Pittock, J. 2016. The Murray–Darling Basin: Climate Change, Infrastructure and Water. In Tortajada, C. (ed.) Increasing Resilience to Climate Variability and Change. Singapore: Springer.
[xvii] Brewster, K. (May 29, 2020). NSW water officials knew decades of unmeasured floodplain harvesting by irrigators was illegal. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/may/29/nsw-water-officials-knew-decades-of-unmeasured-floodplain-harvesting-by-irrigators-was-illegal
[xviii] Kiem, A.S. (2013). Drought and water policy in Australia: Challenges for the future illustrated by the issues associated with water trading and climate change adaptation in the Murray-Darling Basin. Global Environmental Change, Vol. 23, 1615-1626.
[xix] Moggridge, B.J. & Thompson, R.M. (2019, January 31). Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/aboriginal-voices-are-missing-from-the-murray-darling-basin-crisis-110769