News

Food security challenge rears its head during coronavirus outbreak

By Sophie Baldwin

As panic buying continues to empty supermarket shelves, the challenge of food security has once again reared its controversial head.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, drought and water policy have all been significant contributors to current Australian food production.

While southern Riverina irrigators have battled through their second successive year of zero allocations — and a dismal harvest to match — northern Victoria barely did any better with a 66 per cent allocation on the Murray system and 80 per cent on the Goulburn and Campaspe systems.

This season temporary water prices peaked at $910/Ml in the Murray system and $720/Ml on the Goulburn.

ABARES recently released its 2019 Australian crop report, with a 33 per cent downward revision and a total fall in summer crop production of 66 per cent, to around 878 000 tonnes.

According to ABARES, wheat production has fallen 12 per cent while barley and canola production increased by seven per cent.

Former Glencore chief executive and grain trader Chris Brookes said a domestic grain shortage on the east coast had averaged 2.15 million tonnes for the past two years, or close to 30 per cent of normal harvests.

The Australian rice harvest last season was just 54 000 tonnes due to low water allocations and high water prices.

Between 1993 and 2002 that figure was in excess of one million tonnes every year.

The last time it reached the million tonnes milestone was 2013.

The basin plan was implemented in 2012.

In the past two decades, milk production in the Murray Dairy region has fallen 44 per cent, from peak production in 2001-02 of 3.2 billion litres to 1.8 billion litres in 2019.

At the same time total Australian milk production has fallen from a high of 11.2 billion litres to 8.8 billion in 2018-19.

Dairy imports have doubled and, in some years, tripled during the same period.

At the same time, about a third of water once used to produce food for agriculture has been removed from the productive pool and acquired by the government for environmental purposes through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

It is also worth noting the population of Australia in 2001 was 19 million; today it is sitting about 25 million.

Peak body NFF maintains Australia produces enough food to feed 75 million people.

President Fiona Simson said there was no issue with food security.

“Despite the drop in a number of commodities over the past couple of years, and in particular the southern irrigated system as the result of drought and a number of water policies, there is no issue with the availability of food in Australia today as we produce three times what we need as a population,” Ms Simson said.

She said the next six months would be critical, especially in terms of rice production.

“The importance of food is a critical conversation the members of the NFF have been having for a long time.”

Cohuna dairy farmer Jodie Hay does not share the same view.

“As a food producer at the bottom of the food chain I do not share the same confidence,” she said.

“Impacts of the MDBP, changes to water policy and unfavourable weather conditions have resulted in 55 dairy farmers ceasing production in the past year in my hometown of Cohuna alone, and this is a scenario being repeated across the basin.”

Relying on other countries to feed us through increasing imports into Australia is a risky scenario according to Mrs Hay, who said the shutting down of rice exports from Vietnam was a classic example.

“It is essential now, more than ever, the government exercise flexibility in the MDBP and allocate any environmental water available to irrigators so they can produce food and fibre for the nation,” she said.