Farming communities are helping to drive Australia’s sustainable future, but they continue to be abandoned by parts of a federal government seduced by the dollar signs of big mining.

With a federal election looming, farmers across Australia can rightly ask: Who’s going to help us fight the impacts of climate change on our productive land – and on our hip pocket – as the threat of carbon tariffs continues to sound from our key trading partners? 

Aussie farming communities know what climate damage looks like: from the droughts of 2018 and 2019, to more frequent and catastrophic bushfire seasons like those experienced in 2020, to widespread flooding across the eastern states in 2021. 

As recently as 2017, the Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences noted climate change had a significant impact on Australia’s cropping farm productivity, with a 2–20% decrease in yield across south-eastern, eastern and south-western agricultural regions.

Most farmers also understand and back the science calling for dramatic cuts to carbon pollution this decade – supported by the world’s top agriculture and energy agencies – despite the feet-dragging of national governments in many countries, including Australia. 

The real story on climate change never has been (nor should be) about pitting city against country, producers against consumers, environment against business. But some irresponsible politicians continue to pitch everyday Australians against each other in an ideological proxy battle.

The shared interests of farmers and the environment movement have a long history.

The shared interests of farmers and the environment movement have a long history. Nowhere is it more evident than in Landcare. In the 1980s the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Farmers Federation identified the need for community-based sustainable land management practices and created a new organisation to make it happen.

Last year the NFF voiced its support for a whole-of-economy target of net zero emissions by 2050. Broadly, the industry has started pursuing carbon neutral targets in the short-to-medium term for livestock, cropping and dairy.

Another body, Farmers for Climate Change, was created by producers who decided to take the lead in driving the climate conversation in response to largely absent governments.

As farmers deal with climate damage, many have taken mitigating action by improving their practices in favour of more efficient land management.

In Gippsland, locals recently met with federal Liberal MP Russell Broadbent to show the value and power of their work adapting their practices to meet the challenges of climate change.  

Farmers are powerful advocates for climate action.

As a well-respected community that sees firsthand the impact of climate damage, farmers are powerful advocates for action.

But there is a ceiling to what individual communities and industries can achieve. 

Australia and Scott Morrison’s Liberal/National Coalition finds itself at a fork in the road, and at the moment of choice.

It’s a choice between positive climate action with long-term benefits for our environment, people and international strategic and trading relationships, or continuing along the road of inaction, of land-destroying mining and short-term cash for long-term environmental and economic penalties.

Stubbornly, the Prime Minister hasn’t moved from his desire to reach net-zero ‘preferably’ by 2050. This failure to commit has left Australia isolated from key allies and export markets, which are now threatening to impose ‘carbon tariffs’ on our products.

Many individual government MPs want stronger climate action and a concrete net-zero target.

And not just metropolitan representatives like Jason Falinski, Katie Allen and Trent Zimmerman. Regional members like Darren Chester in Victoria and Warren Entsch in far north Queensland have seen the risks that ‘an increasingly warmer climate will mean for Australian agriculture in years to come.’

Fellow regional MP Russell Broadbent told his electorate billions of dollars in food exports would suffer if Europe, the UK or US imposed carbon tariffs on Australia.

If we take the path to a clean energy future, Australia effectively says ‘yes’ to supporting farming and agriculture. But it is the Prime Minister and his party room who must take the lead. 

Pursuing a clean energy future and strong carbon reduction targets in 2030 and 2050 means more regional jobs through new infrastructure to capture, store and disseminate Australia’s abundant wind and solar energy. 

The flow-on benefits to agriculture are obvious: fewer severe droughts, floods and fires.

Such action also avoids the threat of two-thirds of the nation’s agricultural output – the proportion that is exported – being slammed by border taxes from the US, UK and Europe, while Australia copes with an already strained trade relationship with China.

A positive climate agenda represents a vote of confidence in agriculture and our regions.

The alternative is the road we’re on, where the Morrison Government refuses effective climate policy in the face of calls from a majority of Australians, entire industries, local councils, state government and international allies. 

We cannot afford to continue down a road that neglects our farming communities and squanders the tremendous potential of our regions.

Kelly O’Shanassy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Conservation Foundation

An abridged version of this piece was published by the Weekly Times

Header pic by Bette Devine

Kelly O’Shanassy

CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation.