Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Out to Dry: Tracing Implications of Australia's Shifting Climate

As the debate presses on regarding the most efficient and effective methods of implementing a future of sustainable farming practices, we cannot neglect the crises that are shifting agricultural processes as we speak. Australia is currently riding out a major eight year drought that has left their agricultural economy out to dry. It is the worst drought in the country's 118 year history.

Water is life, and to the farmers who refuse to give up hope they are sacrificing their crops, their livestock, their contracts and their families in exchange for some glimmer of hope that the rains will soon return and replenish the lands that once yielded grounds for survival. Farms that lie below the Goyder Line are susceptible to insufficient rainfall for crops to grow and are therefore completely dependent on irrigation techniques to supply water to their farm. Such farms have been dependent on the great Murray River to supply their irrigation channels, paying a yearly fee that as of recent has suspended delivery to farms and instead giving utmost precedence to the southern city of Adelaide. The fury? Farmers are still paying under contract for water they are not even receiving. Similar to farmers in the U.S. cornbelt who are stranded at the mercy of the transnational corporation, Monsanto, options are slim to none while the bills escalate and the livestock that's left along with the family, struggle to survive. In a disclosed interview with a counselor, a farmer's wife "says she checks every couple of hours to make sure her husband is not lying in his orchard with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his head. When the meeting is over, the counselor adds their names to a suicide watch list."1

The multi-generation Australian farmers have never seen a drought reach these extremes and attribute it to world climate change. Even the slightest increase in global temperatures have scientifically been attributed to altering the precipitation patterns that once nourished Australian grazing lands. Unable to turn back past events, farmers recognize the urgency to look at alternative options ranging from developing drought resistant crops to reducing the water supply to dairy farmers whose current use equals a thousand gallons of water for each gallon of milk produced to the construction of desalination plants near the major urban centers. While desalination plants would mean a drastic increase in energy bills, Monsanto is currently producing drought resistant crops for the future 2, an alternative that might leave farmers with no choice despite where their moral obligations fall... Government officials on the other hand are pressing for a major shift that encourages local farmers to find new work and leave the largest producing farms in operation.

It is impossible to wrap ones head around the magnitude of such a problem as this. We might start by tracing the problem back to its source which in this case might be two things: first is the elephant in the room, climate change. This is not something Australians have control over, however what they do control is the location of their farms and the regulation of resources. Perhaps the decision to permit farms to materialize south of the Goyder Line where the known rainfall amounts were already known to be much less than that needed to grow crops. In addition, the dependence on the irrigation systems creates a vulnerability that is currently being exploited at its worst. Farmers are paying for water that they are not receiving to grow their crops and irrigate the lands that feed their livestock. As a consequence they are paying upwards of $20,000 a month to import food for their animals and increasing their debt tenfold. Faced with having to sell their properties as a last resort, farmers are left in turmoil, begging the question in the end, who is responsible for this? Mother Earth's climate? The government? The farmers? Regardless of who is responsible, our footsteps have left imprints on a changing world that demand awareness and action.

In addition to what alternatives are available, the larger message extends beyond the future of Australia and to our planets future. Climate change is happening now and its consequences have begun to accumulate. When and who is next we may not know, but let Australia's drought serve both as a warning and more importantly as a model, for awareness is the first step towards implementing a future of greater sustainable farming practices.


1 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/04/murray-darling/draper-text/1
2 http://www.monsanto.com/droughttolerantcorn/default.asp

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