How Farmers are Uniting for Climate Action – with Anika Molesworth
Farmers and primary producers are experts in land management and meteorology. They need to be in order to survive.
It’s no surprise then that farmers, by the sheer type of work they do, are at the coalface of climate change. Changes in weather patterns, reduction in rainfall, increases in dust storms, decreasing yields with higher temperatures all impact their very livelihood.
It was the decade-long Millennium drought that spurred Anika Molesworth’s interest in climate change, and how to ensure sustainable and vibrant farming landscapes into the future. Anika, who lives on her family’s sheep farm in far western NSW, is a recognised thought-leader of agro-ecological systems resilience. She is an agricultural science researcher, communicator and works in international agricultural development.
Anika is also a passionate advocate for sustainable farming, environmental conservation and climate change action. She is a director of Farmers for Climate Action, a movement that puts farmers on the front lines of climate change and at the front and centre of the solutions. Anika was named the 2015 Young Farmer of the Year, was the 2017 Young Australian of the Year NSW Finalist. In 2018 she was awarded the Green Globe Awards Young Sustainability Champion, and in 2019 she was named a Future Shaper by InStyle and Audi, and a Woman of Influence by the Australian Financial Review.
In this Eco Chat episode Anika and I discuss how climate change is impacting primary producers and how farmers are uniting for climate action.
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YOU’RE A RECOGNISED LEADER IN AGRICULTURE AND CLIMATE CIRCLES. WHAT WAS IT THAT SPURRED YOUR INTEREST IN CLIMATE CHANGE AND SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?
My family purchased an outback sheep station just outside of Broken Hill in 2000. I was 12 years old and absolutely fell in love with the farm, the horses and canoes on the dam. There was an amazing landscape there to be explored. And my parents, having environmental backgrounds, pointed out the most incredible things in the landscape to me. I think that was an amazing upbringing to have, to really be inquisitive about nature and how farmers interact with nature and produce food.
But the year 2000 when we purchased the station was the start of the decade long drought. And so our introduction to agriculture was quite a steep learning curve. In the first 10 years, we had little to no rainfall. It was that experience of living through quite an intense drought period ,about learning about what drought was, how it impacts farmers, how it impacts rural communities, that sparked my interest in learning more about the climate, and the changing climate, because my dream has always been to be a farmer to take on the family farm. That’s what sort of really sparked my interest in how climate change is impacting farmers, how it’s going to impact the next generation of farmers, and what we need to be doing to prepare for those conditions.
That’s a great snapshot. I wonder if the people who sold your parents the property knew how bad it would be with the drought.
HOW IS CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTING FARMERS AND THE AGRICULTURE SECTOR? WHAT IS CHANGING ON THE LAND?
Floods and droughts come naturally and the Broken Hill area is naturally a very hot and dry fire region. That’s one of the reasons that my family and I fell in love with it because it’s such this raw, beautiful, arid environment. You can walk for hours and see such incredible desert life. You can stand outside at night time and see billions of stars in the night sky with no light pollution. It’s an incredible place to live.
But the problem is with these fragile arid zones is that they are very vulnerable to changing conditions. So when temperatures do become slightly warmer, when rainfall becomes slightly less, they are already very fragile, and they are low productive environments for farmers.
When look forward at the climate projections for say, 2015 when I’ll be the average age of Australian farmer, the projections are incredibly sobering. We’re expected to have 33% less rainfall, expected to have two thirds of the year over 30 degrees temperature, two months over the year over 40 degrees temperature, they have changes that means that we would no longer be able to run our business as we currently do. And that’s because we would not have enough rainfall, we would not have enough vegetation. Sheep actually become infertile in hot temperatures. Ewes don’t carry lambs over 40 degrees. Rams, male sheep, become sterile. So it’s learning about those projections that really made me quite concerned about the future, about how it will actually impact me, and how it’s going to impact farmers in Australia and around the world in quite different ways, depending on their industry, depending on the geography.
For instance, climate change means more frequent and intense extreme weather events. With droughts, floods, bushfires, we see changes in pests and disease prevalence and distributions. There’s crop diseases, insect problems like lice and other diseases for livestock that impacts food. You know how much food we can produce, how much fibre we can produce as farmers, that then obviously impacts food security for the end consumers, you know, the accessibility of food, the price of food, the nutritional value of food, are all impacted. So everyone, because we all eat food, because we all wear fibres in our clothes, are very much interlinked in this story of farming and climate change.
Absolutely. It’s interesting. You mentioned clothing as well, because when we think of agriculture sector, the average person just thinks of food and what’s on our plate but you’re right, it’s the cotton that goes into our shirts or the wool for our jumpers. It’s going to impact all of that.
I’ve lived in your climate, in an arid landscape and I know how severe it is. Now I’m in the city of Adelaide and I’m consuming food and I see the prices in the supermarket have jumped up dramatically in the last 12 months for vegetables and meat. The drought and recent bushfires we has had a big impact. And now the pandemic. It’s like impact upon impact upon impact. As a primary producer it must feel like you don’t really know where the next challenge is going to come from. Does that feel like that sometimes?
Yeah, exactly. And this is the thing with climate change. It’s a it’s a vulnerability amplifier. So here in the far west of New South Wales we’re a hot and dry region. We’re already quite vulnerable. We really need a wet winter and we can’t afford to miss that rain. When you look at the long term averages and you start seeing how much less rain we are receiving, how much less rain we are going to be receiving going forward, that makes us incredibly vulnerable to other shocks to the system. For instance, if there is a locust plague that eats the remaining vegetation, or if there is a crash in the market and we can’t sell our few remaining livestock, it means we’re more susceptible to other disturbances. And that’s not a good place to be.
Or if you have a massive dust storm that comes in and wipes off all your topsoil. Like that’s an annual event really, isn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. The dust storms have been so frequent the last few months because it’s been so dry. We’ve received such little rainfall that we’ve got such little vegetation cover. The dust storms are just horrendous out here. And the fact that it’s changing at such a rate and such a magnitude, the number of weeks we had like a 40 degrees this summer, farmers in this region, we just can’t keep pace with how quickly the environment is changing, and how quickly we need to be adapting to those changes. And unless we’ve got really good knowledge coming into this area, farmers are being really left to work it out for themselves.
That’s really, really hard. I can’t imagine how stressful that would be.
you live on your family’s sheep farm in western nsw. what climate-induced changes have you seen there in your lifetime and what do you think your family’s land will look like in 10, 20, 50+ years if there isn’t adequate action on climate?
It’s hot and dry out here and we’ve had to destock our African sheep and goats. And that’s really coming to the end of the line in that they are the hottest livestock species anywhere on the planet. So when you can’t grow African sheep and goats out here, next you can’t grow crops, you can’t do anything else. And that’s the reality that we’re facing.
You look towards 2050 and you use the science to see what is projected in terms of rainfall and temperature. There’s no way that we could actually be producing sheep or goats in those conditions. Because animals do have temperature thresholds, they actually they can’t produce lambs or offsprings in those temperatures. Plus there would be so little rainfall, you wouldn’t have the ground cover, you wouldn’t have the feed to feed them. That’s a reality that I’ve had to face, that the awkward dinner table conversations that we’ve had to have as a family that my dream of taking on the family farm and running a sheep business is not a reality anymore. And that’s really heartbreaking. Because that’s something I grew up thinking, I would love to do that. I love this place that I call home so much, I have such a strong sense of belonging here and to see it go you really feel that to your core, and you see it throughout the community. You see it the moment fourth generation farmers walk off the land because they don’t know how to farm out here anymore. You see the impacts in the rural communities, which are small, tight knit communities, which are becoming fragmented because people are leaving town.
What I’ve been doing is trying to communicate this story, to actually engage people, with what’s happening in these regions. And that’s one of the most important things I think we can do as farmers is to say we are facing this really big challenge. And this challenge concerns everyone, because we are producing food, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to produce that food.
But there are things we can do to stop the damage being done to the climate. We have decades of science telling us what is causing climate change. We have decades of science telling us what needs to be done to reduce those emissions going into our atmosphere. It’s not a matter of technology, or know how, we’ve got the technology, we know what to do. It’s literally just a people problem. It’s people getting their act together, and putting in place what needs to be done now. And that’s putting in place better policies. It’s transferring the energy system from harmful fossil fuels to clean, renewable energies. It’s farming in more of a regenerative way, where we know that we can’t be removing vegetation like we have in the past or extracting from the rivers, like we have in the past because there is less rainfall, because we need to be capturing as much carbon that we’ve put into the atmosphere. We need to be incredibly adaptive, we need to be using the best available science and knowledge. And we need to be communicating this story better.
What can government and policy makers do to future proof our agricultural sector?
We know the main driver of climate change is the dangerous greenhouse gas emissions being put into the atmosphere, which creates a thicker atmosphere which creates a warmer planet. And those greenhouse gases are primarily coming from the burning of fossil fuels, which is coal, oil, gas, and we use it to power our homes and drive our cars. And it’s been great for the last few decades and that has enabled our society to blossom and flourish and do all these incredible things. But we now know the serious impact it is having on our planet, we can see them today, I can look out my bedroom window and see a dust storm and know that my future as a sheep farmer no longer exists. But luckily we’ve got the solutions out there already. We can transition to solar energy to wind energy to geothermal to tidal. And we know that they are increasingly affordable and accessible. People understand that it’s important to do that.
But unfortunately, there’s this misalignment between science and policy at the moment, especially in Australia, where we’ve got decades of fantastic scientific evidence of some of the world’s greatest minds, and we’ve got a very dangerous narrative coming from Australian policymakers saying, Oh, you know, there’s a false dichotomy, or we can’t do it because we will hurt rural communities who are dependent on those mining projects and things like that. That’s not the case. And that’s not real leadership. That’s using rural communities and farmers as scapegoats.
What the group that I’m involved with, Farmers for Climate Action, is saying and saying increasingly louder is, if you are an elected representative who says you stand for rural communities and farmers, you have to be standing for climate change, because it’s hurting people and livelihoods today. And by denying it, by playing down the seriousness of it, by not actually using foresight to see the opportunities that exist from acting now, it’s dangerous, it’s terribly dangerous.
There are so many opportunities that can be happening now like having more renewable energy projects on farms. Farmers have these expansive parcels of land we can put solar panels and wind turbines on that provides secondary and stable sources of income that helps us ride out rough times. Like having carbon and biodiversity payments that encourages farmers to plant trees to sequester carbon. Again, that’s bringing in new wealth into rural communities to agricultural communities. There are all these co benefits that come from acting on climate change, which we’re not being allowed to access or fully grasp yet because of the lack of leadership from coming from our political system.
Indeed, they need to do much more on that one. The message is loud and clear, but that’s just why we’re all rallying and rallying stronger and rallying louder.
You’re a Director for Farmers for Climate Action. What is the purpose of this movement and how can our listeners who want to get involved, get involved?
About five years ago, a group of 30 farmers from around the country, all different industries, got together in the Blue Mountains and we sat down and had the conversation how we’re all feeling the impacts of climate change but we don’t feel like our political representatives are actually representing our views.
We don’t think the story is being told properly in the media. We’re being portrayed as conservative anti climate farmers. And we aren’t accessing the science that we need to in order to adapt our operations.
What started out as a group of 30 farmers has evolved into the incredible Farmers for Climate Action group that we have today. We’ve got over 5000 farmer members and about 20,000 non farm members. We have all the social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a website.
We do three things mainly. Firstly, we work with industry and policymakers. We work with farmers, and local and federal representatives to make sure that the agricultural voices are being heard, and that we get the best climate energy agricultural policies put in place so we can adapt to climate change and reduce emissions.
Secondly, we work with scientists and run master classes where we bring these amazing brains out into the bush to help educate farmers on the projections for region and how they could potentially reduce emissions from their industry.
And then the third thing we are doing is in communications which involves training up farmers on how to speak on radio, to do podcasts, to write letters to the editor, to make sure that the right stories and true stories are getting out there to the wider public. And these are stories about the challenges we face with climate change. These are honest and authentic stories that are being told. But they’re also stories of hope. These are good news stories of farmers who have changed their practices and have seen an increase in biodiversity or are bringing in new diverse income from renewable energy projects. We want to showcase these really good news stories and show there is a better way of doing things.
And so for people who want to learn more and get involved, I encourage you to head along to the website or look them up on any of the social media platforms. There’s fantastic information going up all the time explaining how farmers and agriculture is being impacted by climate change, and what we need to do about it.
Is Farmers for Climate Action just for Australian farmers or is it a worldwide movement?
At the moment its just for Australian farmers. But we were delighted to see, probably two years ago, a group of farmers in Pakistan had set up a similar model. What we would really love to encourage is other farmers around the world getting together, pooling ideas and knowledge and working out how can they change the system so they have these vibrant productive farming futures.
That’s fabulous because I know we’ve got quite a strong global listenership to this podcast particularly in the US so are you happy for me to encourage farmers in the US to get in contact with Farmers for Climate Action in Australia and see if we can grow it ?
Absolutely! I believe that we’re part of a farming family across the globe. Even though we are from vastly different geographic regions, or working with different grains and meats, we do share common challenges. We do need to come together and support each other and learn from each other and work out how to do it better.
I think conversation is needed between our global farming family and people outside of agriculture who are indirectly involved, and I do consider anyone who eats food part of the farming system.
There’s this stereotype of the farmer being an old person using antiquated methods and not moving with the times. But what I see through people like yourselves, is that farmers are some of the most innovative people in our society. They’re there at the front end of climate change and they’ve got a massive responsibility.
That’s why I love working with farmers and agriculture so much, because as you say, they are this incredible breed of people who are yet innovative and resilient. And every day there is another challenge on the farm, but they don’t sit around and point fingers or wait for someone else to fix the problem. They get off their backside and they do something about it. And climate change is no different. It’s a big problem that we’re all facing and we all need to step up and challenge it together. So we can have a profitable, vibrant farming future.
where can our listeners follow you online?
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Anika Molesworth, Farmers for Climate Action