wheat farm food scarcity
(Image: Adobe)

Chris Brooks — a farmer, grain speculator and former chief of Australian operations at mining company Glencore — is adamant Australia’s east coast will run out of wheat by September.

As most Australian mills are in the eastern states, this would have a severe impact: another shortage of flour, pasta, bread and other wheat-based staples in supermarkets.

In 2019, the second year of drought, an east coast shortfall was supplied in part by Canadian imports. But with the world gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brooks suggests there is no guarantee foreign-sourced wheat will be available this time.

And he’s not just concerned about wheat. He fears for rice, dairy and pork too.

Brooks has been referred to in The Australian as the “most influential political activist outside of the capital cities” and has long pursued water policy reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. But his opinion on food insecurity is not widely shared.

In fact the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment have all condemned it.

The NFF president Fiona Simson says: “The indisputable fact is that every year Australian farmers produce far more than Australians can consume. We export 70% of the wheat we produce. According to the Global Food Security Index, Australia is ranked 10th in the world for food availability.”

In March Deputy Leader of the National Party David Littleproud wrote an op-ed telling Australians not to panic. And the April release of the NFF’s We’ve Got Your Back campaign and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences’ (ABARES) “Analysis of Australian food security and the COVID-19 pandemic” report also seemed timed to soothe anxious minds.

A government’s desire for calm amid a global crisis is understandable. But do the facts stack up?

Let’s look at the claims

The most salient point spruiked by Littleproud and the NFF — quickly adopted by the media — is the suggestion that Australia can feed 75 million people (or three times the population). This claim’s origin is murky, but it could derive from the belief that we export 70% of our agricultural produce.

That reasoning, Brooks says, doesn’t stack up because agricultural produce also includes inedible products: “wool, wine and woodchips”. The report also takes production over a three-year average, including the past two years of drought, but also 2016 which was a stellar year for agricultural production. Wheat production, for example, increased by 42.85% from 2015.

Simson counters that we still have more than enough: “75% of [Australia’s food production] is for human consumption — 25,985 kilotonnes of edible products.”

Another strident critic of NFF and government assumptions is a former RAAF deputy chief now strategic policy consultant, John Blackburn. His concern is national security and he’s analysed food supply from the perspective of national vulnerabilities.

“It sounds good to say we can feed 75 million people … ,” he says. “Are they factually incorrect about those particular figures? No. Are they distorting the picture for a political purpose? Most likely. Because they have not done the analysis.”

He says there is more to getting food to shelves than simply producing a glut of raw ingredients. Our food manufacturing and distribution networks rely on packaging materials, fuel, fertilisers, refrigerated containers and labour to ensure food reaches its destination unspoilt.

After the pandemic, distribution and the labour required for processing will return to normal. Yet much of the food on shelves arrives as the product of an extended supply chain, heavily reliant on imports vulnerable to disrupted international shipping, trade spats and measures to contain the pandemic.

Diesel, for example, is 83% imported. Recently the government doubled Australia’s emergency fuel reserves without directly acknowledging this move was linked to food supply chain resilience.

Another vulnerability is any trade difficulties with China.

‘A creeping crisis’

The last time the government looked at food security in real depth was in 2012 in the “Resilience in the Australian food supply chain” report, the result of a deep systems analysis of the food supply chains, its inputs and vulnerability. It painted a far more nuanced picture of food security than the ABARES report.

It made particular mention of Australia’s vulnerability to a “creeping crisis”, a global event that builds slowly and runs for an extended period. Something like the pandemic.

It also mentioned our vulnerability to multiple crises occurring in tandem: bushfires in one part of the country and floods in another.

Its author, Stephen Bartos, rejected Brooks’ claims about immediate wheat shortages, but expressed concern about the relationship between food security and water policy.

On this Brooks, Blackburn and Bartos all agree.

In our food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, water is sold to the highest bidder; priority is given to permanent crops like almonds that are very thirsty and slated for export.

This means the driest continent is essentially exporting water. This comes at the expense of staples that rely on irrigation like rice, which for this year will probably experience a shortage because Vietnam and Cambodia are limiting exports because of COVID-19.

“If we don’t have a reliable water system, then can we rely on the brave assumptions we’ve made to date? ‘Gosh we grow a lot of food so we’ll be alright.’ That’s not necessarily guaranteed,” Bartos says.

In another ABARES report, “Australian agricultural trade and the COVID-19 pandemic“, the government’s ideological colours fly at full mast: “The risks associated with creeping protectionism linked to the COVID-19 pandemic should be carefully considered and actively worked against.”

So the solution to potential vulnerabilities is simply more trade rather than problem analysis and mitigation.

Such spin in response to concerns about food security is ultimately a glib solution to a complex and escalating problem. It skirts over successive governments’ decisions to privatise our ports, commodify our water and assume the uninterrupted flow of imported inputs to our food supply chains.

All these vulnerabilities are compounded in a world entering an epoch that is less stable and therefore less predictable. As Bartos warns: “We’ve been lucky with COVID-19. We won’t always be lucky. That’s the key message.”

Peter Fray

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