Primary sector preparedness means understanding blips and trends


The Deep South Challenge has taught us many things, but a finding that stands out across multiple projects in our Impacts & Adaptation and Vision Mātauranga streams is that responses to climate change need to be local. There is so much regional specificity in how the impacts of climate change are being felt, that trying to apply a nation-wide model to adaptation is of limited value.

This finding made itself known again in this project on preparedness for climate change in our primary industries. This research project sought to go a lot deeper with farmers and other food producers to understand the threats and opportunities at play as they work to meet the challenges of climate change and their need to adapt head-on.

Counting the cost

Anita Wreford (also one of the Deep South’s leadership team, with ultimate responsibility for all Impacts & Adaptation research projects) was working on reports to the IPCC when she started looking for information about the costs associated with both climate change impacts or adaptation, and realised there wasn’t much to go on. As she says, “you couldn’t say that climate change adaptation will cost [x]”

Getting to one round number wasn’t ever the goal, but getting closer was. Anita had conversations with various people in various sectors, but ultimately her position at Lincoln University and its deep connection to rural Canterbury pointed her at primary industries.

An understanding of costs is important. It helps make sense of the impetus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example. And that’s important in Aotearoa NZ, where around half of our emissions originate in the agricultural sector. If there’s no understanding of the consequences of taking no action, it becomes very hard to work out why to do anything.

Prior to this research, there was a lot of biophysical modelling available – so the impacts of climate change on land, farming ecosystems, etc, were starting to be more well known. But there was nothing that really connected it to costs at a local level.

There was also the question of the “direction” of cost – a lot of thinking was around the cost to the farmer. But, New Zealand’s primary industries are of immense economic importance, and in regional economies, often the primary industries are the driver. This was certainly true in Anita’s neck of the woods.

Then there’s cost to the consumer. Getting a better understanding of how all of this fits together was partly about protecting the New Zealand public from undue burden as the impact of climate change forces the price of food way up as farmers absorb the additional price of doing business in the same way it’s always been done.

What we know now

One of the great triumphs of the National Science Challenges is that they brought people together. They provided a mechanism by which collective thinking and conversations could happen at a much larger scale – and it’s that idea that saw Adapting Aotearoa come together in late 2023. This symposium put climate change researchers and primary sector producers in the same room to talk through the issues at play.

Cost was at the core of that discussion, because adaptation naturally requires changes to how farming practice is undertaken: systems change costs money. This is about cost to the farmer – real impact in monetary terms on their income, as they spend more on adjusting to, say, drought. But, a different kind of cost was also at play – the wider regional cost, the societal cost and the unknown cultural cost of not adapting.

At the symposium, there was also a strong focus on not adapting fast enough. The struggle between the financial incentives for incrementalism and the socio-cultural incentives for more radical change was the focus of the symposium report, and several of the talks from the event.

In this research project specifically, Anita and her colleagues produced reports on the impacts to primary industries from coastal flooding and sea level rise, growth and yield of some feed crops in changing conditions as well as information specific to help the dairy sector plan for and sequence adaptation.

Importantly, this project also looked at the perceptions dairy farmers had around climate change; the report on that was called (in part) “As a farmer you’ve just got to learn to cope”, which was a direct quote, and speaks volumes.

What next?

Anita’s own words are the best for describing the future of this work, and how it can inform the ongoing research needed in the primary industries as climate change continues to bite –

“As a whole, I hope the project highlights to the sector the differentiated regional impacts of climate change, and that adaptation needs to be very locally specific. I hope that the work around adaptation planning and sequencing is used by the agricultural sector, to help bridge the thinking around immediate short term actions with planning for what might be necessary in the longer term. For the projected biophysical impacts around pasture growth and persistence, heat stress, as well as the flood exposure mapping, I hope that this triggers some thinking within the sector about adaptation.”

And what can farmers do now?

“If you’re not already taking records (weather, soil temperature, production), start now! This will help understand whether changes are part of a trend or just a blip, and help you understand the impacts of any changes you make.”