Drought policies need revising with climate change wreaking havoc

Published: February 2019 | Edited By: Joanna Webber.

Boggabilla farmer Peter Mailler says that the federal government needs to refocus in order to help farmers suffering through droughts influenced by climate change.

Peter with wife Clare and dog Eve on their grain and cattle farm near Boggabilla. Source: Fairfax. 
MY wife Clare and I bought our property west of Boggabilla in North West NSW from my parents 13 years ago. I’m a third-generation grain and cattle producer with a degree in agricultural science. I grew up in agriculture, working with my dad, and I’ve seen nearly every record weather event in my career.

I remember the news images of dead cattle back in the 1980s and witnessed firsthand some of the terrible circumstances farmers and rural communities were facing at that time. Droughts are nothing new and we have learnt a lot from them. Growers have been constantly upgrading and evolving farming practices and we have reached a very sophisticated execution of farming systems that has enabled us to manage weather volatility very well. The trouble is that the baseline for weather volatility has shifted.

“What used to be a once-in-100-years extreme weather event is now a once-in-five-years extreme weather event. Scientific and anecdotal evidence for global climate change is irrefutable and political obfuscation of this is doing us all a great disservice.”

Climate change strategy better than ad hoc drought funds

Currently there’s an urgent issue around drought relief, but the bigger problem is the need for this kind of assistance will become the norm. The federal government’s ad hoc approach to drought is fraught with danger because we have no political strategy in place. We need drought relief, but we also need a national strategy to deal with ever-increasing extreme weather events.

Coonabarabran farmer Angus Atkinson beside his dam, which only received 145mm in six months (between January and July, 2018). Read his story here. Photo by Jake Lindsay.

When the National Food Plan was rolled out in 2013, the federal government consulted widely with industry and determined its primary objective was to ensure people had access to safe and affordable food. The point they missed is that it must be affordable for the producers, too.

Like any business, you need to balance the risks with the rewards. If you’re in a high-risk business, then you need a high return. Today, farming is a low-return business that carries a very high risk and the government is enforcing conditions on growers that impinge on our ability to operate.
Government complacency robs farmers of profit opportunity

Here is just one example: in 2012, federal parliament passed the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill with a specific condition to ensure wheat stocks information would be published to improve transparency and reduce the risk in the market. Conservatively, this was estimated to be worth between $3-5 per tonne of wheat to growers in Australia because the entire wheat market is leveraged off the export supply chain. However, after becoming agriculture minister in 2013, Barnaby Joyce refused to enact that.

Five years down the track, Australia has produced in excess of 125 million tonnes of wheat, but growers have missed the $3-5 per tonne gain. By failing to do one small thing that would improve the efficiency and performance of an agriculture supply chain for just one commodity in the grains industry, growers have forgone about $400-600 million.

- Clever silo storage helps grain farmer
- What makes a truly innovative farmer?
- Marrar family switch from sheep to cropping

Wheat farmers are not seeing the benefit of the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill that was passed in 2012, but not enacted. Photo by: Matt Beaver. 

I find it incredible that the government brags about its pumped-up drought relief package when it has failed to improve the efficiency of any commodity supply chains that would deliver better annual return to farmers. I also find it incredible our politicians refuse to even acknowledge climate change in their response to drought. The government abandoned its exceptional circumstances program that recognised an event beyond the reasonable management capacity of the business should be deemed exceptional and would trigger support to agriculture.
Agricultural industry is key to sustainability

Right now, there is no coherent policy to mitigate drought, which isn’t regarded as a natural disaster. Drought frequency and intensity is increasing, which is being influenced by our changing climate. It’s time to dispense with undermining science and have an honest political discussion about drought and climate. 

was the NSW government right to cancel drought declarations

- Drought declarations: for or against?
- Building resilience to drought 
- The truth about the Murray-Darling

I don’t want to be an alarmist, but the stakes are high. Every civilisation throughout history was founded on, and sustained by, an agricultural enterprise. If you can’t sustain your agricultural enterprise, you can’t sustain civilisation.

In World War II, more people died of starvation across Europe than in combat because the war had decimated their agricultural capacity. It’s estimated up to 45 million people starved in China after the communist revolution of the 1950s. And, if you visit America today and ask about the Dust Bowl, people my age and younger will know you’re talking about the drought that destroyed crops throughout the 1930s. People in these countries have a cultural memory of these sorts of events taking place. Global, social and political stability depends on seven billion people being fed.

RELATED: Solar energy in rural communities 
“Australia has never been hungry and the result is very shortsighted politicians who ignorantly argue supporting agriculture is optional rather than essential."

Weather patterns have shifted significantly in my lifetime. I don’t know many farmers who would dispute that, and science says it’s going to get worse. The risks are unmanageable at the farm level and we now need policies to mitigate the risks.  

* These are Peter’s personal views. If you would like to be ‘On my soapbox’ in a future issue of The Farmer, email: [email protected] or write to: The Farmer, Suite 53/26-32 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, NSW 2009.  If your topic is chosen, a journalist will be in touch.

Enjoy this story? Want more in-depth news on farming in NSW? Members of NSW Farmers receive a free glossy magazine called The Farmer, direct to their letterbox, with exclusive news, views and deep analysis. Plus of course, you get all the benefits of being a member of the largest state farming organisation. Join here