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Climate Science to underpin Innovation in Agriculture, news from Australia

13th Apr 2017

Source: Australian Farmers,11th April 2017

In early March, Australia’s agriculture sector converged on Canberra for the Outlook Conference, ABARE’s annual showcase of the importance of agriculture to Australia.

ABARE's Outlook Conference (Outlook) once again grabbed the national headlines with the release of projections that the Australian farm sector was on track for our best-ever results. Agricultural production is forecast to tally a record $63.8 billion in 2016–2017. And by 2030, Australian agriculture is tipped to be a $100 billion sector and Australia’s largest exporter.

Innovation in agriculture – capturing the opportunities was the theme of this year’s conference.  When the past is no longer the best guide to what the future will bring, understanding the climate we are experiencing now and what we may face in coming decades is key to ensuring that we have science- based climate information and services into the future. The Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub has a valuable role to play here.

...investing in climate science, knowledge and innovation has been, and will continue to be crucial to the continued success of agriculture

Jack Knowles, Manager, Natural Resources Policy, NFF

Current understanding

The stark reality of why investing in climate science, knowledge and innovation has been, and will continue to be crucial to the continued success of agriculture was made apparent in Outlook’s climate session.

Neil Plummer from the Bureau of Meteorology gave a packed audience a sneak peek at the improvements in seasonal forecasting that we are likely to see as the Bureau transitions from POAMA to ACCESS-S in its forecasting models later this year. This new capability is exciting and will deliver higher resolution, more accurate seasonal forecasts that are issued more frequently.

A much more sobering climate tale was presented by CSIRO’s Zvi Hochman.  In attempting to understand why overall productivity in the wheat industry has flat-lined in Australia in recent decades, Zvi and his team at CSIRO found that wheat yield potential has declined by 27% over the past 25 years.  This decline is explained by crop water stress and warmer seasonal conditions over the grain zone, change that is highly unlikely to be explained by random climate variability alone.  Zvi’s conclusion was that the hard work of the industry and researchers to develop and adopt new practices and technologies has enabled growers to close the gap between actual yields and yield potential while fighting the downward pressure on yield potential from a changing climate.

These two presentations crystallised for me the importance of the investment in underpinning climate science being made through the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub.

How can climate science support innovation and associated decision-making in agriculture?

For more than two decades, the ag sector (in partnership with the Australian Government) has recognised the need to co-invest in the science and the capability needed to deliver quality seasonal climate information in a way that makes sense for farmers to use. That need now extends to longer (multi-decadal) climate change timescales. A thorough understanding of likely future climates is crucial to underpinning the millions and millions of dollars that are invested each year by the agriculture sector, in partnership with the Government and commercial parties, in research and development focused on improving the productivity and profitability of farmers.

At the heart of understanding future climates is understanding how the climate works: its large-scale physical drivers, processes and how they interact and respond to change. So while examining ocean heat uptake might seem a long way from the paddock, it will tell us more about the hydrological cycle and how it is being affected by global warming. Research examining past climate variability and extremes, particularly with relation to extended heatwaves and droughts, will help us to make better projections about the future impact of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation on the climate system influencing the Australian continent.

Work to further develop ACCESS to support future capability to fill the forecasting gap between seasonal climate predictions and multi-decadal climate projections will bring us closer to providing the agriculture sector with climate information on a critical operational timescale extending from seasonal to decadal.

As well as the underpinning science, Hub research is also focusing on how best to develop and apply regional climate projections at a finer spatial scale across Australia, including projections of future water availability.  This makes projections more relevant, useful and accessible for agriculture as it will enable information to align to our agroecological zones.

It is not only the investments in individual projects, but the focus of the Hub on partnerships, collaboration, stakeholder engagement, communication and knowledge brokering that will really drive value from the investments in research. Collaboration between researchers and the end users of their work will mean that climate information and decision-support tools will provide real-world utility for the farmer sector.

Beyond this, decision makers will be able to use the direct outputs of the Hub’s research, when planning the innovation agenda and priorities that will underpin the future productivity, profitability and sustainability of the ag sector. It is absolutely vital for our future success that the understanding and knowledge derived from the Hub’s work is available to those that will shape the technologies and practices that will be used by farmers in the future.

Jack Knowles is Manager of Natural Resources Policy with the National Farmers' Federation and is a member of the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub's Stakeholder Advisory Group