Australia, host of the recent G20 summit and home to one of the world’s chowhoundiest cities, is on the brink of a food crisis. Analysts say that the country’s five-year-long drought is its worst in 1,000 years and is expected to cut staple-crop production by more than 60 percent this year. After an initial drop in the price of some livestock (like sheep, which I’m told are selling for $1 AUS apiece these days), food prices are expected to spike nationwide in the months ahead. And the drought is having a psychological impact on growers and ranchers as well: Faced with dying crops and livestock, farmers are committing suicide at the rate of one every four days.
Sure, the continent-cum-country is halfway around the world for most of us—but as South Australian Labor premier Mike Rann put it recently, “what we’re seeing with this drought is a frightening glimpse of the future with global warming.”
One bright side of this sad affair is that it may push agriculture in Australia to a more sustainable level—and perhaps it will also give the rest of the world some ideas. While farmers of water-intensive crops like rice and cotton are taking a lot of heat for their irrigation practices, those growers have become mega–water efficient by necessity and could potentially export some of their know-how to help other nations conserve water. Even better, some farmers are switching their land over to more efficient crops, creating strong local-food movements in the process. “We’re really going to have to start rethinking the crops we do in Australia,” says Doug May, a vintner whose family farm used to produce only super-thirsty plants and animals like potatoes and cattle, but now grows greens, fruits, and legumes for the local CSA.