Thursday, February 08, 2007

Agricultural opportunities from climate change?

Malcolm Turnbull is making strong claims about the ability of irrigated Australian agriculture to meet the decline in food production associated with the exhaustion of groundwater resources in India and China. He wants Australian irrigators to increase (not decrease) their production by improving the efficiency of water use. He said:

‘The North China Plain, which had 400 million people, was 75 per cent supplied by groundwater, which would be substantially exhausted within 10 to 15 years’.

This echoes messages presented at a Crawford Fund Conference in 2006.

I am not knowledgeable enough about Australian agriculture and about the possibilities for improving water conservation to make anything like a definitive comment on this claim. But I point out that irrigated agriculture is already putting enormous pressure on current Australian water supplies in the Murray Darling Basin. Even with dramatically improved conservation of water these supplies will come under increased pressure from climate change. Without attempting to address CO2 emissions rainfall in the MDB might change drastically although the direction of change is very unclear. The CSIRO don't know - they forecast up to either an increase of 40% or a decrease of 60%. A study is now underway to narrow down forecasts.

While we should be aware of business opportunities in agriculture that arise from global warming we should also think about the need to develop anticipatory, adaptive policies for addressing it. An Australian action plan to consider such changes has been prepared. Generally, the environmental and biodiversity implications of expanding irrigated agriculture need to be considered alongside the business opportunities.


robert merkel said...

I'm not sure what the opposite of a perfect storm is, but whatever it is, I think there's a reasonable chance that our farmers will get it over the medium term.

Why? A combination of two things. As hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians get out of poverty, they'll want to improve their diet. And unless a previously unobserved concern for animal welfare materializes, that will involve them eating a fair bit more meat and fish. And the vegetarians have it right on one thing; meat requires more land to produce than plant-based foods. Furthermore, you've got the biofuels craze in the USA and Europe.

Both of those add up to a lot more demand for agricultural commodities, in my view.

The wild card is of course climate change, both here and overseas.

hc said...

Robert, That's Turnbull's basic point and he may be right. But I think the implications of climate change are potentially staggering.

Not only for agricultural production in Australia and China but also for the millions in China without a living.

Our ignorance of the specific climatic effects of warming is huge.

Sir Henry Casingbroke said...

So how do you explain Howard's recalcitrance? The TV item tonite (ABCTV) seems to suggest that El Nino may become a permanent feature. This would see the end of Australian farming of anything as we know it for large parts of the continent. How far can JWH take protectionism of the coal industry?

hc said...

Sir Henry,

I think electoral issues will drive both parties to address climate change seriously. Trying to placate coal communities (often poor communities) won't work - the risks are too serious.

This issue should transcend party politics.

BTW what will the 400 million people in China do when they have no groundwater and cannot carry on with agriculture. Civil war? Mass international migrations, invasions?????

I am guessing but it doesn't souund good.

conrad said...


Even if you don't realize it, at least you've worked out a good reason why it appears that the Chinese are more worried about becoming rich than pollution right now. Being rich allows you to solve some of these problems.