Australia's Long Drought Withering Wheat, Rice Supplies

Carolyn Barry in Sydney, Australia
for National Geographic News
May 29, 2008

Part two of a special series that explores the local faces of the world's worst food crisis in decades.

Les Gordon is no stranger to Australia's harsh climate. A rice grower from the country's breadbasket region, some 512 miles (820 kilometers) southwest of Sydney, Gordon has spent almost half his three decades of farming battling drought.

But the most recent dry spell threatens to end his rice-growing days altogether.

"This is the first time we haven't had any rice since my grandfather planted his first crop in 1949," he said. "This is the worst drought in a long time."

In Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent, drought punctuates the climate record with disheartening regularity.

There's not been a decade since official records began that hasn't seen severe rain shortage. Down here drought is just a part of life.

But the onset of two record-breaking droughts in the past seven years—one of them widely considered "the worst drought in a thousand years"—has had far-reaching and crippling effects.

Major river systems are drying up. The Murray-Darling River Basin—home to 40 percent of Australia's agricultural industry—is at record low levels.

The dearth of water has ravaged Australian agriculture, from wheat to dairy, meat to wine. Some industries will take years to recover.

Rice farmers have arguably faired the worst: Production has been slashed to a measly 2 percent of pre-drought totals. Exports have virtually ceased.

Though Australian rice accounts for less than one percent of the global rice trade, "normal production levels would feed 40 million people around the world every day," said Gordon, who is also president of the Rice Growers' Association of Australia.

"Now we'll be able to supply a lot of Australia pretty well, but not much beyond that."

Continued on Next Page >>




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