With Australians bunkering down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, panic buying and hoarding of everyday groceries led to severe shortages of some products.
Rice, pasta and some canned foods sold out in the weeks after state and federal governments imposed restrictions and urged Australians to stay at home, with a sudden rush to stock up severely straining supply chains.
State and federal government ministers have said repeatedly that buying huge volumes of food and groceries is unnecessary, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison labelling panic buying “ridiculous” and “not sensible”.
The National Farmers’ Federation also sought to quell concerns about food shortages, telling consumers not to “panic” as there was “plenty of food to go around”.
Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management David Littleproud went so far as to declare that Australia “[has] the most secure food security in the world”.
“We’re a nation of 25 million people,” Littleproud told ABC Radio National’s Afternoon Briefing program on May 11. “We produce enough food for 75 million.”
Is that correct? Does Australia have “the most secure food security in the world”? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Littleproud’s claim is in the ballpark.
According to many studies and experts, Australia enjoys a very high level of food security. The nation produces an abundance of food, exports far more than it needs, and has ample alternative sources of certain foods should they become scarce.
While Australia is not the top-ranked or “most” food-secure nation in the world, according to some comparisons, it nevertheless has plenty of flexibility in terms of food sources and could switch production priorities to alleviate shortfalls. One international comparison places Australia 12th among 113 nations in terms of food security.
Richard Heath, of the Australian Farm Institute, typified the response of the experts.
“By the most basic definition–— which is, ‘Are we at risk of starving because we cannot feed ourselves?’ — we are so far from that, it’s ridiculous,” he said.
“When you consider the availability of irrigated-water area, the amount of arable land … we are a very secure nation in terms of food.”
What does it mean for a nation to be ‘food secure’?
Food security is a complex notion that incorporates two fundamental concepts: quantity and quality.
The first is whether a nation has sufficient sources of food — whether locally produced or imported — to sustain its people. The second is whether the people have reliable access to food that is safe to eat, nutritious and affordable.
A nation, for example, may have bountiful supplies of a particular type of food, but insufficiently diverse food sources to provide a consistently nutritious diet.
Similarly, it may have physical access to food, but its people cannot afford to buy it. Or it may be overly dependent for its needs on imported products, or vulnerable to severe fluctuations in commodity prices.
All nations commonly have segments of their population that suffer from limited access to safe, affordable and nutritious food. These include the homeless, low-income households, isolated communities or households that struggle to manage daily life challenges.
Having a high “food security” rating (as determined by various theoretical models) implies a nation is able to provide the overwhelming majority of its people, most of the time, with affordable food sources that will nourish them and provide a healthy diet.
What is ‘food sovereignty’?
This is a wider concept that takes into account issues about who controls the primary sources of food and its associated distribution systems: ownership structures, economic power bases and the policies that underpin a nation’s food supply chain.
Food sovereignty incorporates cultural preferences about what kinds of food are produced, how they are farmed and what goes into their production.
Heath, the executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, a policy research group focused on the agriculture sector, said some organisations and individuals commonly misappropriated the term “security” when they were really arguing about “food sovereignty”.
He described the latter as “where what you eat is all produced in the nation”, and said references to “food security” sometimes took on political overtones in Australia.
On assessing the claim
Fact Check has examined the concept of “food security” by applying a broad interpretation, assessing “food security” based on globally-used definitions for nutrition and affordable access to food, while also taking into account vulnerability to food shortfalls or supply-chain disruption.
An abiding duty of governments is to ensure that their citizens are protected and safe, a concept that includes having sufficient food to sustain the population’s daily needs. A nation that cannot feed its people is potentially vulnerable to political instability.
Conversely, political instability and regional hostilities can lead to food shortages if daily production is disrupted or crops are destroyed.
Occasionally, local shortages may arise due to drought, floods or pestilence that curb production and disrupt the usual supply of one or more types of vegetables, fruits, grains or meats to consumer markets.
Market forces or government intervention can assist to ensure alternative foods or alternative sources of supplies are made available.
In a globalised trading world, many elements of Australia’s food production and packaging depend on imported goods, such as machinery, certain types of fertilisers and some types of packaging.
A break in this supply chain could disrupt the ability of local producers ultimately to meet demand. But experts say this would not be catastrophic to Australia’s food sustainability.
Putting food security in a historical context
Global concerns about food security were heightened in the early 1970s after drought, storms and floods ravaged developing nations in eastern Africa and heavily-populated Bangladesh.
At the same time, political upheaval and the trend towards collectivised agriculture deterred large-scale food production in India, Chile, Peru and some other nations.
Rapid population growth, inflation, black market profiteering and mismanagement of government-owned stockpiles resulted in extreme food shortages.
The crisis led to a global summit in Rome in 1974 where delegates to the World Food Conference set a highly ambitious goal of eradicating hunger everywhere.
The World Food Summit of 1996 confirmed the failure of that goal, but set new commitments and an action plan focusing on the concept of “undernourishment”.
As part of these deliberations, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defined food security as:
“[A situation] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
The FAO noted four dimensions to food security:
- Availability — food is actually available through food production, stock levels and trade;
- Access — people have economic and physical access to food (aspects that centre on prices, market forces and income levels);
- Utilisation — there is good biological utilisation of food through preparation and feeding practices, diversity of diet and intra-household distribution;
- Stability — there is long-term stability of the above three factors.
How does Australia rate?
Fact Check examined three key sources to determine the extent of Australia’s food security.
1. The Economist Intelligence Unit
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) compiles extensive country-based research and statistics on a broad range of economic and policy areas.
As well as nourishment, availability and affordability aspects of food security, its Global Food Security Index takes account of the natural resources and resilience of a country.
The index also considers structural changes that may affect a nation’s ability to feed its people.
The EIU’s Global Food Security Index ranked Australia 12th out of 113 countries in December 2019, based on an overall score of 81.4 out of 100. Australia sat below Singapore (87.4), Ireland (84) and the US (83.7), as well as seven other European nations and Canada.
Although Singapore is the top-ranking nation for “food security”, it imports most of its food and has little access to arable land. The Singapore Food Agency concedes the nation’s food supply chain “remains vulnerable to external shocks“.
Put another way, should Singapore have to close its borders to all civilian and cargo movements, it would soon run out of food.
This highlights the confusion over “food security”, which is measured in terms of the food that is available to a nation, and “food sovereignty”, which includes concepts about control of the food chain.
The EIU ranked Australia seventh for affordability of food and 10th in terms of availability of food.
On the quality and safety of its food, Australia came in at number 20, behind the Scandinavian countries and most western European nations.
2. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation
The FAO’s latest statistical reports indicate that Australia, like countries in North America and Europe, ranks highly in terms of food security.
The FAO considers food security — or rather, insecurity — in terms of the proportion of a nation’s population that does not have access to safe, nutritious and affordable food.
The organisation’s assessment is that a relatively low percentage of Australia’s population experiences severe or moderate-to-severe food insecurity, placing it among the most food secure nations in the world.
Nevertheless, the FAO found that an increasing number of people in Australia struggled to obtain reliable, safe, nutritious and affordable food.
Indeed, the number of Australians said to be suffering from severe “food insecurity” has risen from about 600,000 in 2014-16 (calculated as a three-year average) to about 900,000 in 2016-2018, while as much as 13% of the population has a moderate degree of food insecurity.
A review published in early 2019 by Deakin University researchers also found significant variation in the way food insecurity was measured (or determined) within Australia — an outcome that, in their view, suggested the prevalence and severity of food insecurity was under-reported inside Australia.
A separate study by Max Roser of Oxford University and Hannah Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh, which examined data on food security rates worldwide, suggested Australia’s undernourishment rate may be closer to 3.5% of the population, and that as many as 3 million Australians experience moderate to severe food insecurity at some stage.
3. Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
ABARES is the science and research division of the Department of Agriculture, Research and the Environment.
It provides detailed analysis and production forecasts for various industries, including agriculture, fishing, forestry, climate and drought biosecurity and food demand.
On April 17, ABARES published an analysis of Australia’s food security in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It concluded that concerns about food security in Australia were “understandable, but misplaced”.
ABARES found the nation produces substantially more food than it consumes.
Australia exports about 70% of its agricultural production (by volume), including 71% of its wheat crop, 75% of beef and veal production, and 40% of its dairy products.
In turn, about 11% by value (not volume) of food and beverages consumed in Australia comes from overseas.
ABARES said it was “unlikely, but possible” that COVID-19 restrictions could temporarily disrupt supply chains of imported foodstuffs.
That may cause “inconvenience” to some consumers, but ABARES said it would not jeopardise the nation’s overall food security.
ABARES researchers noted, however, that shortages or disruptions to supply chains for products used by Australian agricultural producers (such as fertilisers, seed variants, machinery and so forth) could affect the volume of output and profits for local food producers.
In a subsequent, more detailed report, ABARES said that although disruptions in international markets “may affect the choice and cost of some items, it will not have a material impact on overall food availability”.
“There may be disruptions to some industries, but the sheer volume of Australia’s food production relative to the needs of the domestic population mean domestic food supplies will not fall short,” the researchers concluded.
“Despite temporary shortages of some food items in supermarkets caused by an unexpected surge in demand, Australia does not have a food security problem.”
What about rice? A case study
The volume and availability of rice in Australia has garnered particular attention in recent weeks amid concerns about potentially lower world production and constraints on the rice trade due to pandemic restrictions imposed by some rice-producing nations.
Severe drought in south-east Asia especially affected Thailand and Vietnam, two of the top three rice exporting nations by volume.
Yet the world’s biggest exporter, India, enjoyed favourable rice-growing conditions and has increased the area of land under plantation. It is expected to produce a record crop of more than 117 million tonnes in 2019-20 and one similarly large next year, although COVID-19 civilian movement restrictions may crimp production outcomes.
Labour shortages in some countries due to restrictions on civilian movement, has led the US Department of Agriculture to clip its forecast for 2019-20 global rice production to 496.1 million tonnes, about 0.5% below last year’s record high.
As well, trade restrictions imposed by some South-East Asian nations that export significant quantities of rice could curb the volume of rice traded internationally.
The USDA’s April 2020 forecast suggests traded rice volumes in 2020 are likely to be about 5% below last year.
Vietnam, for example, temporarily banned most exports of rice in March as part of concerns about its population’s food security during the pandemic.
On April 28, it began to ease pandemic-related export restrictions and planned to recommence rice exports fully this month.
Also, the USDA noted in its April 9 bulletin that global supplies of rice (and wheat) are “at record levels and are large enough to meet global demand”.
Australia is a relatively minor player in the world rice market, representing about 2% by volume of internationally-traded rice.
The Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia says that in a non-drought year, about 80% of the local crop is exported.
In the 13 years to 2017-18, including several drought-affected years, local rice-growers produced an average of 575,000 tonnes, and exported about half that amount. ABARES’ figures on the rice industry indicate Australian consumers demand (on average) 297,000 tonnes a year, a mix of imported varieties and locally-produced rice. Local demand has been increasing steadily for more than a decade.
Several years of drought in eastern Australia’s prime rice-growing regions have severely affected domestic production, due to a lack of water and high prices for traded water.
Production for 2019 was estimated to be 54,000 tonnes, or less than 10%of the long-term average.
The Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia, which lobbies on behalf of domestic producers, criticised the ABARES food security report as “misleading” in terms of the rice sector.
It said the security of Australia’s rice supplies remained in question due to the combined effects of drought and constraints on exports by some countries.
It argued that another “extremely small” Australian rice crop was likely unless more water was “made available at cheaper prices between now and the 2020 rice-planting window in October”.
Local rice producers and growers of irrigated crops have called on the state and federal governments to make more water available to them from the Murray-Darling Basin.
ABARES researchers, though, say locally-grown rice is only a “modest” contributor to the notion of food security in Australia.
In its April 23 report, ABARES rejected the call to divert water to rice and other irrigated crops.
“Calls to divert water or other inputs to the production of crops such as rice would only create additional costs for other agricultural producers or to the environment, while doing nothing to increase the supply in the short run since the growing season for rice has past [sic],” ABARES researchers said.
What do other experts say?
Bill Bellotti, the food systems program director for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, said the recent panic buying in grocery stores is a consumer-demand issue. It did not stem from problems with the production of food or Australia’s capacity to produce food.
“Food security, for most people, depends on the familiar food supply chain — producing, processing, distributing and consuming food,” Bellotti said.
He suggested the real bottleneck during the COVID-19 crisis had been in the retail chain.
“The big retailers had food in their distribution centres but could not re-stock fast enough to meet panic demand,” he said.
“The pandemic is forcing a rethink on the resilience of these global connections and the ‘just-in-time’ food supply chains. A take-home message is that this shock to the food system provides a time for all food actors [the people along the supply chain] to reflect on the impact of the coronavirus on their role.”
Bellotti said this opportunity for reflecting was available to everyone, including consumers.
“For example, consumers might consider buying local fresh produce over imported or highly-processed food,” he said. “Consumers might reduce food waste. I think there will be lasting changes in consumer behaviour in response to the coronavirus.”
Richard Heath, of the Australian Farm Institute, said Australia did not have a problem with food security.
“By the most basic definition — which is, ‘Are we at risk of starving because we cannot feed ourselves?’ — we are so far from that, it’s ridiculous,” he said.
“When you consider the availability of irrigated-water area, the amount of arable land … we are a very secure nation in terms of food.
“But the language of food security has become politicised in Australia. It has come to mean that, due to a particular set of policy settings and market mechanisms, we do not have certain industries [thriving] — think about rice and dairy.
“That is not because we do not have the production capacity to do it. Our production capacity of food is very high, but we are using water that is available and producing almonds for export, for example, rather than milk for consumption or rice.
“We are food secure, but policy and market settings mean that from time to time, we are not secure [in certain products] … [although] we can very easily substitute it for something else.”
Principal researcher: Leonie Wood
Additional research: Natasha Grivas
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