For Australian cattle farmer Jody Brown, the most chilling evidence of drought is the silence. Trees stand still, the warbling of birds gone. Lizards and emus have long departed, while kangaroo mothers, unable to sustain offspring, kick baby joeys from their pouches, leaving them to perish in the devastating heat.
“You just feel like you’re in some kind of post-apocalyptic scene,” 37-year old Brown said from her family’s ranch in Queensland’s central west. The constant dryness means her cattle herd has dwindled to around 400, down from 1 100 at its peak in 2002, and at times there have been no animals on the land at all. The native grasses, once green sustenance, have disintegrated into grey ash.
The world is facing a new era of rapidly increasing food prices that could push almost 2 billion more people into hunger in a worst-case climate crisis.
Confronting the dire predictions, farmers have begun to adapt. On Brown’s ranch in Australia, she’s experimenting with regenerative-farming practices better suited to drought.
And across the globe, farmers are swapping crops, switching seeds, increasing irrigation and even putting face masks on their cows in the battle to both increase output and reduce their own emissions. Meanwhile companies including Syngenta Group, the Swiss agrichemicals giant, are developing new varieties for vegetables like cabbages that are more resistant to extreme weather.
“We’ve got to adapt,” Brown said. She’s exploring alternatives to traditional grazing methods that don’t push the land as hard, like grouping together livestock into tighter, more compact groups and rotating them quickly across paddocks.
“Potentially, there were always better ways of doing things, but you just didn’t notice because you weren’t put under the pressure that climate change puts you under,” she said.
It’s a fight against the floods, drought, frost and scorching heat that have plagued farms from Brazil to Canada and Vietnam, which scientists predict will only worsen in the decades ahead.
Global crop yields could fall about 30 percent because of climate change, while food demand is expected to jump 50 percent in the coming decades, according to United Nations’ estimates. Fisheries and water supplies are increasingly threatened, too, said Zitouni Ould-Dada, deputy director of the office of climate change, biodiversity and environment for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
One of the biggest challenges for farmers is that there isn’t currently the large-scale coordination or access to funds that would be critical to undertake the kind of massive transformation that’s needed.
“If you have to deal with millions of farmers around the world, that you have to coordinate, that’s a huge ask,” said Monika Zurek, senior researcher at University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.
The UN’s FAO is calling on leaders attending the COP26 climate summit to pledge more global actions to help farmers scale up solutions. The group is targeting annual investments of US$40 to $50 billion through 2030 to fund things like innovation in digital agriculture.
Without widespread change, the result could be a spiral higher for food prices that will hit importing nations particularly hard.
From Russia to India, here’s an up close look at the measures being taken by farmers in countries across the globe.
Lucas Lancha Alves de Oliveira is making a drastic change on his farm in the countryside of Sao Paulo state. He’s ripping out half his coffee trees to plant corn and soyabean instead. It’s a bold move because the trees are typically an investment meant to last years, but Oliveira is being forced to change course after coffee crops were slammed first by drought and then an extreme frost — a toxic combination for the sensitive trees.
“We got seven months without rain,” said Oliveira, who runs the family-owned company Labareda Agropecuaria, focused on gourmet coffee sales.
The drought was followed by the cold blast, which damaged 20 percent of the area.
“Many trees that would produce a lot of beans were chilled by freezing conditions. The losses will be huge next year.”
But the shift won’t last forever. After next year’s harvest, Oliveira will start to replant coffee trees gradually, with an important change: the crops will be fully irrigated. It’s a huge upfront cost, but given the extreme drought he’s seen over several years, Oliveira wagers it’s worth the expense.
“We’ll only plant coffee with irrigation from now on,” he said. —Tatiana Freitas.
Francois Slabbert, a farmer in the Northern Cape, said the shift in seasons is forcing grape growers to sow other crops like pecan nuts. Where winters usually occurred between mid-May and mid-August, it’s now not underway until about a month later, exposing grape farmers to frost that damages their crop.
While it takes as long as 11 years for pecan trees to start yielding nuts, the crop can be lucrative as about 95 percent of production in South Africa is exported, Slabbert said.
“It takes time, and there’s a huge economic impact to the shift,” he said.
“But when you’ve done it, when you’ve completed it, it’s good in terms of the turnover.”
Meanwhile, for Japhet Nhlenyama, a cattle farmer in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, drought has gotten so bad that it’s left his livestock emaciated because there’s no grass to feed on. He’s considering giving up on farming. In previous years, he’s gotten some government assistance, but he hasn’t gotten any aid so far this year.
“My living livestock gets blown over by the wind and others are dead because of the drought and not having any food to eat,” Nhlenyama said.
“We honestly don’t know what are going to do to survive.” —Khuleko Siwele — Bloomberg.