A new report has laid bare the billions of dollars worth of damage to Australian agriculture from the Black Summer bushfires.
The Fire on the Farm report, by the University of Sydney with the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia, estimates between $4 billion and $5 billion was lost to agriculture in the blazes of 2019-20.
The catastrophic fires claimed 33 lives, with the smoke thought to have contributed to up to 429 premature deaths from 19 weeks of continuous fire activity.
Some 10,000 homes and other structures were also destroyed.
The report estimates the fires cost the agriculture and food sector about 6-8 per cent of Australia’s agricultural gross domestic product.
The bill includes damage to farm buildings and a downgrading of farmland values estimated between $2 billion and $3 billion, as well as the loss of crops and more than 100,000 livestock.
The report also updates initial estimates by WWF Australia of the economic cost of the 2019-20 bushfire greenhouse gas emissions.
It found that cost has risen dramatically to between $3 billion and $7 billion in damages, depending on the expected rate of forest regeneration and based on the federal government’s most recent emissions report.
Forests regrow but do not store the same amount of carbon because they do not always recover quickly or fully from bushfires.
“Increasingly the damage we see from bushfires are of our own making, and that includes the damages arising from the greenhouse gas emissions that those bushfires provoke,” lead author of the report, conservation economist Joshua Bishop from WWF Australia, told AAP.
He said Australian farmers need to be prepared.
“This has been a taste of the future, a future that’s hotter, drier with more energy in the atmosphere, with bigger, more costly natural disasters of all kinds … so the question is are we ready?”
The report found about one quarter of the area affected by fires was agricultural land.
It concluded that 2.628 million hectares, or slightly less than one per cent of all agricultural land in Australia, was burnt.
Beef cattle producers suffered the biggest losses from the fires, with revenue falls of around $373 million.
At least $279 million in losses was estimated due to the fire-related health impacts suffered by farmers and other food workers.
The report recommends government and the food industry do more to help farmers build resilience to bushfires and other natural disasters.
“Australia relies on agriculture for both domestic food supply and international trade,” University of Sydney fire ecologist Tina Bell said.
“We need to protect this industry by doing everything in our power to reduce the devastating impact bushfires can have on production, landscapes and livelihoods.”
The royal commission into natural disasters, which followed the Black Summer bushfires, recommended a body similar to national cabinet be formed to look at long-term policy, national preparations and disaster response.
Among the inquiry’s findings released in October 2020 was that governments at all levels should be engaged – along with Indigenous and other communities – to ensure effective disaster management, action and recovery.
The new report comes as Victorian officials implement a total fire ban in the Mallee and Wimmera regions of the state’s northwest.
It follows a bushfire that burned around 7800 hectares in Western Australia’s Margaret River region, which police believe was deliberately lit last week.