Noodle lovers beware - climate change threatens Aussie wheat

Slowing wheat output will mean Australian farmers will not be able to keep up with global demand, says a CSIRO scientist. He said continuing declines in output will force "quite a few" farmers to abandon the crop by 2041.
Slowing wheat output will mean Australian farmers will not be able to keep up with global demand, says a CSIRO scientist. He said continuing declines in output will force "quite a few" farmers to abandon the crop by 2041.PHOTO: REUTERS

In recent years, South-east Asian consumers have developed a growing taste for Australian wheat - particularly for use in noodles - but they may soon have to wean themselves off it.

Research has found that the future of Australia's A$5 billion (S$5.4 billion) to A$7 billion annual wheat production is under threat from climate change, especially rising temperatures and falling rainfall.

Australian wheat accounts for about 12 per cent of global exports - and is the largest source of South- east Asia's supply - but the future of the crop is increasingly uncertain.

According to modelling by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's national science agency, the potential wheat output per hectare - the maximum amount that can be produced if land is properly managed - had dropped by 27 per cent since 1990 due to warmer, drier weather.

The agency found that Australian wheat production tripled between 1900 and 1990 but has not risen since 1990 due to declining rainfall and a 1.05 deg C temperature increase in wheat-growing areas.

The CSIRO study found that wheat growers made significant productivity gains since 1990 using technology such as GPS and better soil management and planting practices. But instead of that translating into significantly improved yields, the researchers found that those gains were merely enabling them to keep pace with the impacts of a changing climate.

  • S-E ASIA'S LARGEST WHEAT SUPPLIER

    A$5b-7b

    The worth of annual Australian wheat exports.

    49%

    The amount of Australian wheat in South-East Asia's imports.

    27%

    Fall in potential wheat output per hectare since 1990.

    9%

    Expected fall in average output per hectare by 2041.

    Main buyers of Australian wheat: Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, China, Japan (Singapore is ranked 10th)

Dr Zvi Hochman, a senior principal research scientist at CSIRO, told The Straits Times that slowing wheat output will mean Australia's farmers will be unable to keep up with growing global demand.

He said continuing declines in output will force "quite a few" farmers to abandon the crop by 2041.

"Our results are a serious concern to the future livelihood of wheat farmers in marginal growing areas and to the Australian economy, as well as future global food security," Dr Hochman said.

"In terms of wheat production, Australia provides a buffer against drier periods in other parts of the world. If our yield stagnates and falls, Australia's role as a buffer would have to be brought into question."

The threat comes as demand for global wheat continues to grow, particularly in Asia.

Australia provides about 49 per cent of South-east Asia's wheat imports. Other large suppliers include the United States, Canada and Ukraine, which together account for about 42 per cent of South-east Asia's imports.

A spokesman for Grain Growers, which represents the sector in Australia, told The Straits Times that the Indonesian market alone has accounted for 20 per cent of Australian wheat exports in the past five years, followed in the region by Vietnam at 9 per cent.

A report last June by Rabobank, a bank that specialises in dealing with farmers, found that South- east Asia's wheat demand will increase by 4.5 per cent a year over the next five years. It said the demand was due to rising incomes and a changing diet, including an increased appetite for wheat-based instant noodles and bread.

Experts in Australia have urged growers to capitalise on growing Asian demand by tailoring wheat supplies for use in bread and noodles. This can include developing varieties of wheat that produce stable-coloured, crisp noodles.

Longer term, though, the production challenge remains. CSIRO's study found that Australia's average yield of 1.74 tonnes of wheat per hectare was likely to fall to 1.55 tonnes by 2041.

Aside from wheat, which is Australia's main grain crop, other grains such as barley, canola and pulses are also likely to be affected because they grow in similar areas and soil conditions to wheat.

Dr Hochman said that despite better farming practices and technology, the trend was still towards lower production.

"In areas that are already marginal, farmers are losing up to 100kg (of wheat) per hectare per year, so it will get to a point that they may have to look at other options," he said. "Assuming the climate trends continue at the same rate - and even if farmers improve their yield - the likely result is that the overall yield will go down."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'Noodle lovers beware - climate change threatens Aussie wheat'. Print Edition | Subscribe