How climate change could drastically affect Australia’s food supply chains

Scientists have warned that Australians can expect more shortages of fresh food for some time to come as climate change creates increasingly unpredictable weather.

The Bureau of Meteorology announced this week it was moving from a La Nina ‘watch’ to an ‘alert’ phase, now estimating a 70 per cent chance that a rare third consecutive La Nina weather event would occur before the end of the year.

It’s the final phase before the bureau officially declares a La Nina event.

On Friday morning new Australian research was published warning of the wide-reaching consequences climate change and associated wild weather could have on Australia’s food supply chains and food availability.

Fruit, vegetables and livestock under threat

The study, published by international science journal Nature Food and funded by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, assessed potential disruptions to the food supply chain that could arise following various weather scenarios.

The researcher found that the fruit, vegetable and livestock sectors would be the greatest affected in the event of wild weather.

In the Murray-Darling Basin region of New South Wales, for example, the study projected that there could be a 43 per cent reduction in meat production and 45 per cent reduction in wool production by 2030 due to climate change.

It also said that extreme heatwaves could cause a 40 per cent decrease in the output of dairy and cattle farming in parts of NSW, and a 25 per cent decrease in apple and pear crops in the Murray-Darling Basin region of Victoria.

Farmers are already feeling the stress brought on by extreme weather, some in NSW and Queensland losing entire harvests amid the devastating floods earlier this year.

Many were unable to replant due to the unrelenting conditions and sodden soil.

Weather has been far from the only factor plaguing food supply chains.

Various global events, such as the war in Ukraine, have exposed the vulnerability in our food supply systems.

The war in Ukraine sent oil prices skyrocketing, for example, and international travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have limited migrant labour.

Rising prices

Rachel Carey, senior lecturer in food systems at the University of Melbourne’s School of Agriculture and Food, said it was important to recognise the cumulative effect that these various stressors were having on the agriculture industry.

‘‘I think that we need to be aware of the cumulative impacts here of multiple different shocks and stresses that have been affecting the food system. So we’re seeing more shocks and stress, with less time for recovery in between,’’ Dr Carey said.

‘‘I think it’s important that we recognise that it’s the cumulative impacts that are really having an effect on farmers and our food system and the prices.’’

With Australia highly dependent on its domestic supply of fresh produce, Dr Carey said shoppers may soon see prices escalate even further.

‘‘We’ve seen prices increase quite significantly over the last few months after flooding on the east coast. And one concern might be that we see significant flooding during the spring planting season, [and] the impacts might be there as well,’’ she said.

Factors such as low land availability and severe flooding and vicious droughts would only continue to drive up prices, she said.

‘‘[With] less land available to grow food, overall a trend for less water, not during the floods, but overall … all these things are affecting the price of our food and likely to continue to do so.’’

Nutrition and accessibility at risk

Along with rising prices come concerns that nutritious food will become less accessible, particularly in rural areas.

The study found that communities in rural areas would be the most affected as prices continued to rise, with less financial capital to obtain fresh, nourishing food.

Households with higher income would have the ability to obtain expensive goods among short-term shortages, it was found, while low-income households would struggle to do so.

Dr Carey said there needs to be sufficient forward planning to account for rising food prices.

“We also need to be thinking about the impacts that these rising food prices have – [namely] peoples’ ability to access sufficient, healthy food,” she said.

‘‘We’ve seen rising food insecurity recently. That has been a relatively hidden problem in Australia in the past, [but] it has always been there. But it is rising with the shocks and stresses and with impacts on food prices. And I think we need to really look at how we address that issue as a country.’’

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