The big challenge facing us all is feeding the world’s growing population (9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by the turn of the century), in a changing climate, while maintaining quality products and nurturing the environment. The tag line ‘doing more with less’ is often used as shorthand for this challenge, but what does it actually mean? In practice, it means farming systems will need to intensify.
A fundamental step to achieving this is adequately protecting the limited, prime agricultural land we have – something the Queensland Farmers’ Federation continues to work hard to realise. To highlight just how important this is, it useful to consider that currently around 70 per cent of Queensland’s farm gate gross value of production is being produced on or is dependent on (i.e. intensive animal production) only about 2.5 per cent of the state’s total land area. The other fundamental piece of the puzzle is properly addressing the energy-water-climate-food nexus.
While farmers are familiar with the interconnectedness between energy, water, climate and food production; policy and regulatory developments continue to treat these as distinctly separate areas. Current government policy does not provide essential and enabling services such as electricity and water at a ‘fair cost’ for agriculture. As trade-exposed price takers, farm businesses have virtually no ability to offset these costs and are more vulnerable than most to a changing climate.
Where energy is concerned, over the last 10 years the price of electricity has increased about 10 times the rate of inflation. A critical input for intensifying agriculture, electricity has now become a major, and in some cases an unsustainable, cost for farm businesses. This is evidenced by figures from the Australian Energy Regulator that show there was an 82 per cent increase in small business disconnections by Ergon Retail (regional Queensland) in 2016-17.
Similarly, the price of water and the associated pumping costs are becoming cost prohibitive, as evidenced by about 300,000ML of unutilised water sitting in existing public storages, very low take-up of additional water releases and farmers reverting to lower productivity, dryland agriculture. Moreover, as the Queensland Competition Authority investigates prices for bulk water supply schemes and distribution systems, some irrigators will face significantly higher prices because of cost increases to maintain scheme assets, rising electricity and insurance costs, and the impacts of lower water demand forecasts.
Additionally, global trends point to consumers becoming more environmentally and carbon conscious about their future food. In response to this social change, a body of evidence is building that sparing natural habitats by using high-yield farming to produce food is the best option for feeding the world while saving its species, as using less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil loss and consume less water.
However, without more deliberate action to resolve the ‘water-efficiency’ and ‘energy intensity’ trade-off currently taking place in agriculture, the likelihood of perverse and wasteful outcomes will increase. There are many elements and layers to the energy-water-climate-food nexus, but ‘modular’ solutions are achievable and will deliver results for farmers.
With climate change upon us, solutions to these problems are urgent; however, there is no central authority working to solve them. QFF is calling on the state and federal governments to assume responsibility and examine the water-energy-climate-food nexus and the implications of not addressing this key issue for the future of Queensland agriculture.