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As figures show more than one in 10 Australians do not have access to adequate food, climate change has made global famine a serious threat. By Esther Linder.

Australia is not prepared for a climate-related food crisis

A wheatfield in Ukraine, allegedly ignited deliberately by Russian shelling.
A wheatfield in Ukraine, allegedly ignited deliberately by Russian shelling.
Credit: Ihor Lutsenko

The image is of a swath of creamy brown severed by a flaming wire. Smoke and blackened earth follow the flames.

Translated from Ukrainian, the caption reads “Russians burn our bread”.

American writer and journalist Rebecca Solnit had linked to a post by Ukrainian politician and journalist Ihor Lutsenko, that described the destruction of a wheatfield set alight by the invading Russian army. Since the invasion of one of the world’s major breadbaskets, wheat exports have been blocked from leaving Ukraine’s ports and damage to the country’s agricultural sector has topped $US4 billion.

As the conflict enters its sixth month, the risk of a global famine is growing more potent. That’s because the conflagration in Ukraine is compounding a longer-standing crisis: climate change is already making food harder to come by for billions of people. The field in Ukraine is one small fragment of a planet on fire.

 

It’s a cold winter’s day on the other side of the world when I sit down with Professor Lauren Rickards to talk about disasters of our own making.

Rickards is an expert on human geography, agriculture and climate change, and their deep interconnection. She runs the urban futures program at RMIT University in Melbourne, which focuses on how cities can become more sustainable and equitable while rapidly developing. As well as being a Rhodes scholar, she was a lead author of the Australasia chapter in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, writing specifically on the impacts of human-induced climate change as seen from a global and domestic perspective. When asked whether thinking about climate catastrophe on a daily basis affects her, she laughs dryly.

“Like most people who work in this field, I do a really good job of ignoring my feelings on this – or trying to – as a coping strategy.”

Rickards chooses her words carefully. “My career has been shaped by climate, and climate change,” she says, going on to describe her early career consulting during the millennium drought – until recently one of the worst long-term natural disasters Australia has seen.

Between 2001 and 2009, large expanses of southern Australia went without regular rainfall, devastating the Murray–Darling Basin and surrounding farming communities, and threatening Adelaide’s water supply and the broader economy.

 

Farming runs in Rickards’ family – her parents studied agricultural science and her grandparents were dairy farmers. An early academic interest in natural disasters, coupled with a focus on agriculture, brought her to climate change and the IPCC. When asked about what climate change means for food security in Australia, Rickard stresses the complexity of the issue. “A purely calorific counter means that you miss the actual nuance of food insecurity. And one of the things that climate change is doing is not just threatening yields, it’s diminishing the quality of food in a number of ways,” she says.

Quality is just one of the measures of secure access to food; affordability and availability are also key. By each of these measures, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, refugees, people under the poverty line and international students are among the most disadvantaged.

While data isn’t often collected, the proportion of the Australian population that is regularly unable to access nutritionally adequate and safe foods may be as high as 13 per cent, and rises to as much as 23 per cent in First Nations communities, according to the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group (ASLCG), a collection of former defence and policy leaders. With food prices in Australia climbing at the fastest rate in more than a decade, it is those who have few options for accessing food who will be most impacted.

 

Australia’s food landscape is not short of crops. According to the Australian Food and Grocery Council in June 2020, “we produce enough food to feed 75 million people”. Supply chains were described as “safe, efficient and reliable”. Our wheat production amounted to 25 million tonnes of grain, or 3.5 per cent of the world’s supply.

However, in circumstances frustratingly similar to those that surround our recent gas crisis, our focus is overwhelmingly on export markets. Domestic supply chains work like a spider’s web of interconnecting threads that are incredibly vulnerable to disruption.

“We’re somewhat blinded to food insecurity in Australia because we have had a very strong focus on agricultural production by quantity, and in particular the proportion that’s exported,” says Rickards. “We’ve used a very simplistic arithmetic to conclude that because we export the majority of agricultural commodities that are produced, we therefore have some kind of enormous surplus.”

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that what Rickards terms “violent shocks” to our food networks could turn into a cascading and compounding system-wide failure. A recent example is the January floods in South Australia, which shut off trucking supply routes between Adelaide and the Northern Territory, causing weeks-long food shortages across the Top End.

That happened in part because most fresh food grown in the NT is trucked to Adelaide for processing. It is then returned north on road trains, recrossing a distance of roughly 3000 kilometres, to be sold in Territory supermarkets.

While this works in theory, the quantity of “once-in-500-year” natural disasters across the nation means each link in the chain is increasingly vulnerable to climate-related impacts. The cost of flooding in New South Wales alone – before this year’s devastating La Niña-related floods – is estimated at $250 million a year. This situation is not expected to improve.

IPCC modelling is generally accepted as being somewhat conservative, which is why the most recent estimates for global heating and its flow-on effects in the panel’s sixth report released earlier this year drew global alarm. Rickards explains that climate-change scenarios are conservative, as modelling typically cannot account for all the possible interactions of events caused by heating the atmosphere and oceans.

So while wildfires rage across western Europe and the rate of glacier melt in the poles accelerates exponentially, research bodies such as the IPCC cannot envisage the full impact of these cascading crises.

Australia’s population is anticipated to grow by 40 per cent by 2050, at the same time as our capacity to produce food decreases. The southern half of the country is expected to become even drier, with below-average rainfall and higher temperatures likely to depress wheat yields across the country. According to a 2019 report by the Climate Council of Australia, the Murray–Darling Basin – the source of half of Australia’s agricultural output – is expected to halve in production by 2050 as a result of climate change. Food, both in quantity and quality, will become scarcer.

A report released in June by ASLCG outlined the dire implications of climate-change-enhanced global and domestic food insecurity.

The very first summary point of the paper states, “Australia is ill-prepared for the security implications of climate-change enhanced global food crises” and their associated risks. These risks include global declines in crop yields, drought, political instability and anticipated regional and international conflict. An upswing in climate-related migration alongside crop failure, inflationary pressures and ongoing natural disasters means that food networks will come under increased strain. In the Asia–Pacific region, heatwaves such as those in India and Pakistan have already affected large areas of cropland and have resulted in India banning wheat exports.

Australia’s proximity to these crises means the country is likely to feel their impact, while dealing with what Rickards calls “crazily nervous and brittle” domestic food networks.

 

In its pre-election energy and climate policy pitch, Powering Australia, the Labor Party pledged to assess the nature of climate-security risks such as food insecurity. However, it’s unclear what sort of action will ensue. A climate-focused crossbench will test the strength of the Albanese government’s credibility, starting with the upcoming debate over its “floor, not a ceiling” target of 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030.

From Rickards’ perspective, finding solutions to climate-induced food security is “about vigilance and staying vigilant. We can’t just slip into oblivion.”

She notes some of the work being done by state and federal governments to positively adapt and address the issues within our current systems, such as adaptation action plans in Victoria and Queensland, as well as the Goulburn Murray Resilience Strategy.

“Because of the scale of the risks, but also because of the opportunity to do things better, we need to ask bigger questions about ‘is this whole approach and system what we need and what we want?’ ”

 

The United Nations World Food Programme estimates 345 million people in 82 countries are facing acute food insecurity.

As crops around the world are destroyed – whether in conflict or by the slow burn of climate change – more action is needed. To date, Australia’s policy response is fragmented and fails to properly address these issues. Until progress is made on a holistic solution that ties together climate, industry and consideration for social inequality, things are only going to get worse.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Breads are burning".

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Esther Linder is a photojournalist and The Saturday Paper’s digital content assistant.

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