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Climate change? No drought!

By Louise Staley - posted Monday, 6 November 2006

I nearly choked on my Wheaties as I skimmed the online newspapers. Paul Sheehan, a senior journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald barked at me “it is not a drought. It is climate change.”

Well gee, that sneaky climate change must have crept up on us here pretty darned quickly. On the farm I live on last year was a good season, prices could have been a bit better, but that’s what happens when there’s plenty of grain around. This year the canola is being baled for hay or just left in the paddock for the sheep to eat, the wheat is shrivelling by the day and only the barley might return something; maybe a tenth of a normal season. It hasn’t rained properly since April and the pastures are brown and bare. Looks like drought to me.

Returning to Mr Sheehan, he goes on to say “we changed the landscape. We cut, stripped, gouged, channelled and laid it bare. And thus changed the climate.”


I wonder if Mr Sheehan, and anyone who agrees with his column, enjoyed their Wheaties while reading the paper. I wonder if they made the link between their breakfast and the need for farming to provide that breakfast. And I wonder if any of them ever paused to consider how offensive those words are to the thousands of farmers growing wheat, in drought, who volunteer year in year out at their local Landcare and who adopt conservation farming practices.

In certain circles an argument is going around. Human activity causes carbon emissions. Carbon emissions cause climate change. Climate change is making Australia hotter and drier. Previously productive agricultural land is no longer viable. The Federal Government must do something about carbon emissions instead of propping up unviable farmers. Unviable farmers need to leave the land.

Major proponents of this view are the Australian Greens. Senator Christine Milne says, "It is not enough for Prime Minister Howard to grab his chequebook, don his Akubra hat and head bush full of sympathy. It's a recipe for on-going disaster. What Australia needs is a full assessment of the climate modelling and the extent to which the pastoral, wheat, sheep and coastal zones have shifted as a result of a changing climate, with an adaptation strategy to match."

That full assessment, in the middle of a severe drought, will, of course, find that most drought affected farmers will have a negative income this year. And, like any business, negative income is not sustainable.

So a report based on a bad drought year will paint a completely unrealistic picture and tell policy makers and the community nothing about the long-term outlook for agriculture. But it might reinforce existing prejudices that Australian farming is unsustainable. It might convince yet another crop of potential farmers that there’s no future in it for them. And sadly, it might push yet another farmer over the edge to suicide.

But we should not be surprised that the Greens have nothing positive or supportive to say about farmers coping with severe and widespread drought. The Greens agriculture policy statement starts off by attacking pioneers for clearing land to create farms and current farmers for using fertiliser. Not once in the whole policy document, is recognition that farmers, as custodians of the land, have made significant advances in the adoption of sustainable farming practices.


Then there are claims by others that much of the land currently farmed, shouldn't be farmed. Really? Where is the evidence that much of Australia’s farmland is unviable? Or the tarring of the entire drought assistance program as wreaking environmental vandalism. This is unsupported by research and insensitive to the ongoing actions of thousands of farmers in the drought.

The likely effects of climate change on Australia are worthy of study as is the development of long-term policies to mitigate its effects. Proposals to enhance the environmental status of land, both farming and bushland are welcomed. Drought relief policies, like all other policies should be debated, challenged and measured for their cost-effectiveness. But what is unacceptable is tarring all farmers in drought, whether receiving assistance or not, as marginal, as yesterday’s industry.

Similarly, to unthinkingly use farmers to thump the Federal Government over its climate change policies flies in the face of the reality this country has always had times of drought.

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About the Author

Louise Staley is a Research Fellow The Institute of Public Affairs.

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