Can drought resistant crops future proof Australian agriculture?

Not everyone believes in global warming, but most Australian farmers will agree that things can get pretty hot Down Under.

According to the majority of climate models, things won't be cooling down soon either, which means the development of drought resistant crops is likely to become increasingly important in Australia.

The threat of drought to Australian farmers

Compared to many other nations, Australia is particularly prone to drought.

Few Australian farmers will have forgotten the Millennium drought, a period from late 1996 to mid-2010 when virtually all of the nation's southern cropping zones including much of the Murray-Darling Basin were affected by prolonged, episodic dry conditions.

Drought conditions are nothing new to Australian farmers. Drought conditions are nothing new to Australian farmers.

In 2002-03, conditions got so bad there was a 20 per cent reduction in agricultural income and a 1.6 percent dip in GDP, according to the Australian National University. As a result, the government took serious action – implementing a series of water conservation techniques, including:

  • Providing rebates for grey water systems
  • Investing in recycled water
  • Designing innovative pricing schemes for water
  • Offering water tank subsidies
  • Overall improvements in water planning and management

Many of these techniques have been used in California, who recently experienced their most severe drought on record.

Is drought proofing Australian crops a viable option?

While water conservation techniques can go a long way, they can't always ensure farmers have what they need for a successful crop. To this end, farmers must turn to technology and innovation, including the creation of drought resistant crops.

Farmers must turn to technology and innovation, including the creation drought resistant crops.

This year, Australian farmers experienced some of their driest winter starts in history according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Some grain farmers in Adelaide, however, managed to have an above average crop thanks drought resistant grain varieties engineered at the University of Adelaide by French crop scientist Doctor Delphine Fleury.

Fleury isn't the first one to emphasise the importance of drought resistant crops in Australia. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has also made major gains in the production of new drought tolerant plants as well as the development of cropping practices that allow farmers to do more with less.

Much of this comes down to finding crops that use water very efficiently then determining which genes are most responsible. Once useful genes have been identified, they can be used in the breeding of drought tolerant varieties of other crops.

Often, scientists will look for crops in the Australian desert, where plant varieties have survived under extreme heat for over one million years. Unfortunately, many of these plants are quite unrelated to those we grow for food, which can make breeding difficult. 

While there is a lot of promise in drought resistant crops, we're still a long way from being able to grow the food we need in ultra dry conditions. For true protection against drought, Australian farmers need comprehensive multi peril insurance that can help them protect their livelihood when extreme weather strikes.

To find out more about drought protection with our PrimeGuard Multi Peril Crop Insurance, reach out to the team at Primacy today.