Opinion: Lessons from the Australian bush fires

  • Opinion
  • 20/01/2020

By Mike Chapman.

OPINION: Watching the bush fires rage in Australia is harrowing as well as thought provoking.  One of the things it has made me think about is the need for New Zealand to have a food supply plan or policy so we can feed our people, no matter what. 

At present, the focus in Australia is on the awful devastation, loss of human and animal life, and loss of properties, farms, and commercial vegetable gardens and orchards. 

For example, an orchardist in Bilpin, a fruit growing area North of Sydney, has experienced an estimated A$1 million loss due to fires that destroyed part of his orchard.  There are also reports that 10 percent of Australia's apple and pear production is threatened in Batlow, which is in southeast New South Wales. 

Even Australia's cities are not exempt with reports that the impact of the smoke is costing Sydney A$50 million a day.  More than 5 million hectares - twice the size of Belgium - have been destroyed by the fires, including many homes and properties that grow food.  Putting this in perspective, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service stated that last year, the total area burnt was 280,000 hectares.

The climate change debate that the fires have prompted saw Russell Crowe say, on receipt of his Golden Globe award this week: 'Make no mistake. The tragedy unfolding in Australia is climate change-based.  We need to act based on science, move our global workforce to renewable energy, and respect our planet for the unique and amazing place it is.' 

Last year, Australia was the hottest and driest on record, with the average annual temperature 1.5 degrees Celsius above the 1960 to 1990 average, with temperatures last month hitting 49.9 degrees.

Horticulture NZ's Mike Chapman.
Horticulture NZ's Mike Chapman. Photo credit: Newshub

The ramifications of the loss of productive land, higher temperatures and the loss of water will be felt for many years.  There will be less produce for Australia from Australia and less Australian grown produce exported.  Consistent hot temperatures and fires in the future will further restrict the ability of Australia to grow produce. 

The likely impact on New Zealand will be a reduction in imported Australian produce and a greater demand for New Zealand grown produce, in New Zealand but in Australia as well. 

This year, the major challenges urban and rural New Zealand are collectively facing are water quality and climate change adaptation.  The message from Australia is not to delay our work and, if anything, to speed up what we are doing before we become like Australia and find it is too late.  We need to take seriously Australia's warning of what may become reality in the future.

The impact on the world of what we do in New Zealand to address climate change will not be that significant, but it will make some difference.  However, where we can make a major impact is with food production. 

Our first priority needs to be feeding New Zealand in the knowledge that imported food will become more costly and less available as countries like Australia face climate change.  We need to become food supply self-resilient.  Once we are, we can then turn our attention to what we can grow to help feed others such as Australia.  To achieve these goals, we need a food supply or security plan and policy, and we need to act now.

There are many factors to growing successfully but having productive land with water and sufficient nutrient allocation is essential.  As a country, we need to work out what we can grow, how we can grow it and where we can grow it.  The Government, councils and those who grow food need to work in partnership to work all this out and develop the plan.  We need to enable growers to grow the crops best suited to their lands. 

As Russell Crowe said, we need to base our decisions on science and sustainability.  This is a real step-change for New Zealand but one that in my opinion we must make to ensure we can feed not only our people but many others in the world.

Mike Chapman is Chief Executive of Horticulture NZ.