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Balancing act: Climate models highlight options for sustainable agriculture

Massively reducing cotton and canola crops in favour of summer vegetables, stone fruit and citrus could be the key to Australian agriculture realising some of the potential benefits predicted by the recent Intergenerational Report. 

I’ve been working with a national team to map climate models looking 100 years into the future that show we can boost food security and economic outcomes from agriculture.  

We’ve been exploring how a ‘business as usual’ approach to cropping compares to changing the type and location of crops grown in Australia. 

Our modelling, based on the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA), found that simply reducing the volume of crops we grow to align with reduced water availability would reduce revenues by nearly 30 percent. 

But a focus on different crops and increasing the production of fruit and vegetables could make agriculture 30 percent more profitable using the same amount of water. 

We found that by doubling the amount of area dedicated to horticulture – summer crops like zucchini and tomatoes, for example – significantly improves the profitability of agriculture in the MIA. 

The most water efficient solution generated by the model also favoured increased planting of other horticultural crops such as citrus, vines and stone fruits with a drastic reduction in cotton and canola which have large water requirements. 

But drastically reducing broadacre crops of cotton and canola is hardly a simple solution and unlikely to be a popular one. 

The perishable nature of horticultural crops would require investment in infrastructure, transport and processing. 

This presents opportunities for Australia to increase the value of commodities for export and develop regional employment in food processing, but it would mean a major shift for the sector. 

Our research aims to demonstrate how modelling tools can provide decisionmakers with key data and explore a variety of options when shaping policy on how to manage climate change.  

With a rapidly changing climate and population increases, governments and farmers alike can use these tools to make sensible policy and operational decisions now so they can mitigate the worst of the effects in the future. 

The predictive method we’re using has the advantage of being able to consider many climate change models at once, making them more robust and offering greater confidence. 

The recent release of the Intergenerational Report shows just what we are likely to be up against, so having these models that can consider all the data will help us make better decisions for our changing future. 

Marcus Randall is Professor of Informatics with the Bond Business School’s Centre for Data Analytics. 

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