Australia should appoint a “minister for food” to shore up national food security, with agricultural experts warning recent high prices for lettuce and other produce could be “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Threats to Australia’s food supply include climate change, loss of agricultural land, worker shortages, a looming fertiliser shortage, and global shocks such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Dr Rachel Carey, senior lecturer in food systems at the University of Melbourne, said Australia’s status as a net food exporter should not be taken for granted, and the government needed a long-term plan to boost food security.
“The COVID-19 pandemic was perhaps the first time that Australian consumers had that experience of going to a supermarket and not finding what it was they wanted to buy,” Carey said.
“We’ll continue to experience that more frequently, unless we really do some serious long-term planning for how to increase the resilience of the food supply.
“We don’t really have anybody in government who is accountable for whether people have enough food, so a minister for food might be a good start.”
Professor Mark Howden, director of the Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions at the Australian National University, backed the idea of a minister for food, given expected population growth in Australia and globally.
“It would be appropriate to have a minister or an existing minister, such as the agriculture minister, actually start to take on board a much more explicit component dealing with food and food security in that portfolio,” Howden said.
Carey said the assumption that Australia is food secure because it produces a lot of food glossed over the threats, and ignored the mix of produce being imported, exported or grown for domestic consumption.
Figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade show more than a third of Australia’s food exports in dollar terms are meat (especially beef) and wheat.
Grain is sold based on who is offering the highest prices at the time, while meat is sold both on the spot market and through long-term contracts. Howden said production was sufficient that government intervention to ensure domestic supply, as happened with gas, was not yet needed.
But the DFAT figures show only 9 per cent of food exports by dollar value are fruit and vegetables. Carey said only particular fruits and vegetables were exported, and most production was for domestic consumption without significant surplus – and that means shortages when extreme weather events occur, such as the recent flooding in NSW and Queensland.
Carey said there was a “whole range of shocks and stresses” affecting food production around the world. That included the recent invasion of Ukraine, since Russia was the world’s biggest exporter of fertiliser and Ukraine was a major producer of grain and oil crops such as wheat and sunflower seeds.
Howden said Australian agricultural production was heavily dependent on fertiliser based on phosphorus – a mineral that is limited in supply, with Russia and China holding some of the largest reserves.
Howden added that Australia was also facing challenges with increased pests and disease, and herbicide-resistant weeds.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group II report from earlier this year predicts high temperatures and extreme weather events would directly affect Australia’s agricultural output, with yield decreases for wheat and rice and reduced meat and dairy production, as well as cause global supply chain shocks.