Lessons for New Zealand in Australia's climatic challenges

I am having a sunny week on the Gold Coast with my family - it feels like a long way from the Dunedin winter which I understand has finally hit.

We are the only ones swimming without wetsuits, watched by bemused Aussies.

The coast is actually looking quite green with good rainfall recently.

I have seen banana palms, macadamia orchards, sugarcane and the odd dairy farm - a different agricultural landscape to what I am used to.

I have been feasting on melons, pineapples and pawpaws and of course, Aussie prawns - when in Rome, as they say.

My veritable feasting belies the challenges of climate for Australian agriculture.

This morning my milk, bought from Woolworths, carried the words ''DROUGHT RELIEF MILK'' and ''part of the proceeds of this milk goes directly to farmers affected by drought''.

The number of dairy farms in Australia is rapidly shrinking and predictions are that in a decade Australia will have to import much of its milk.

Drought in the Murray Darling Basin (Victoria) is now the worst on record (from records which track back 120 years) and perhaps more telling, is that in most regions in Australia, the number of days over 35degC have increased, meaning stressed livestock, plants and further water loss.

Not only are the levels of annual rainfalls dropping for farmers, but the annual distribution of rain has also shifted and winter rainfall is in steady decline.

ABC News (https://

mobile.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-17/how-climate-change-is-affecting-what-we-grow-and-eat ) describes how South Australian farmer Annmarie Brookman has been tearing out her pistachio, walnut and apple trees.

She planted the pistachios 30 years ago, because they grow with relatively little water and tolerate high temperatures, but they rely on winter chill to regenerate - which hasn't been happening. Similarly, her apples were suffering from extreme heat damage during the fruit maturation stage - basically cooking on the tree.

It must have been heartbreaking to pull down once-productive trees, but in their place, she has planted pomegranate and jujube (red date) trees and she is surviving.

As always, farmers remain resilient and adaptive. They have to in order to survive droughts, floods, fires and whatever nature throws at them, but what happens to these adaptive Australian farmers in another 30 years? If the climate keeps changing, how much more can they adapt?

Australia's largest and oldest pastoral company, AACo, owns sevenmillion hectares of land and recently lost 43,000 head of cattle in the Gulf of Carpentaria flooding.

Its CEO, Hugh Killen, said recently ''the direct effects of climate are real for us - we come to this discussion with first-hand experience and a commitment to find a way forward comes from the heart'' (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jul/02/action-now-the-fa...).

Farmers understand climate change first-hand and many want action, despite what is often portrayed by local media.

Farmers are at the start of our food chain, but as consumers, we're not exempt.

Food prices in Australia during the 2005-07 drought increased at twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index and fresh fruit and vegetables were the worst hit, increasing 43% and 33% respectively (https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/foodsecurityreport2015/).

The wealthy people I see here on the Gold Coast will keep eating, but greater amounts of imported food and increasing prices doesn't bode well for those lower down the financial tree - fresh fruit and vegetables might increasingly be the preserve of the wealthy.

Food will become the ''oil of the future'' for the world and those countries with a secure food supply will be places where people want to live.

On the surface, all is well in Australia, but the climate there is such that it is likely to reach an agricultural tipping point before New Zealand.

Viewing the Australian data and reading the farmers' stories is overwhelming and I find myself asking - without having an answer - how can New Zealand learn from Australia's enormous challenges?

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin-based agri-technology company.

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