Long-haul food could deliver a national crisis

04 Jun, 2012 09:17 AM
Comments
1
 
Woolworths Mulgrave distribution centre. Photo: Craig Abraham
Woolworths Mulgrave distribution centre. Photo: Craig Abraham

AUSTRALIANS' growing reliance on food transported long distances on drum-tight distribution schedules has heightened the risk of food shortages in the event of crises such as floods, bushfires and pandemics, a federal government study has found.

The Department of Agriculture report identifies the concentration and lengthening of Australia's supply chain as a food security risk, as communities are increasingly dependent on deliveries of perishable food such as milk, meat, fruit and vegetables, from thousands of kilometres away.

''The key question is whether, following a natural disaster or other major disruptive event, Australians in affected regions would go hungry. The risk that this could happen is growing, especially if separate events in Australia's eastern states were to coincide,'' says the report, Resilience in the Australian Food Supply Chain.

The food supply chain is the transport and organisation needed to get food from its point of production through to processing, manufacturing, retailing and, ultimately, consumers.

In Australia that chain includes 75,000 truck trips weekly carrying more than 40 million cases of food across the country. Food is sold from about 80,000 retail outlets including supermarkets, shops, restaurants and fast-food stores.

The food chain has lengthened as supermarket giants in particular develop ever more complex distribution networks, and local suppliers cease to dominate fresh food such as milk, fruit and vegetables.

''Longer supply chains expose transport routes to more points of potential vulnerability from such events as flood, fire and earthquake,'' says the report. The risk of food shortage is made greater by major retailers seeking to minimise storage and handling of produce, and their reliance instead on ''just-in-time'' deliveries.

Other risks and challenges include:

  • The food industry's ''limited willingness'' to help in a crisis when profits are at stake.
  • Unrealistic expectations of the Australian Defence Force capacity to deal with food shortages when it is often restricted by red tape and itself relies on the private market for food.
  • Australia's reliance on imports of some food, including infant formula and canned fish, as well as for some important additives and packaging.
  • The Queensland floods of late 2010 and early 2011 were a test of the Australian food supply chain. No one starved, but weaknesses were exposed. Rockhampton was cut off by road, rail and air for two weeks. Brisbane came within a day of running out of bread.

    In the far north, cyclone Yasi missed major population centres such as Cairns and Townsville. Had they been hit, maintaining food supplies would have been difficult.

    Restocking of supplies was done with food from the south, including from Melbourne, and by trucks using alternative routes including through far western Queensland.

    But the report found that had bushfires such as those in February 2009 occurred at the same time as the floods, deliveries to far north Queensland would not have been possible.

    Department of Agriculture Assistant Secretary Allen Grant told the current Senate inquiry into food processing: ''If we had multiple emergency experiences happening around the same time - flood in Queensland, fire events in Victoria and another event in, say, South Australia - then the national system would struggle.''

    Page:
    1
    AGE
    Date: Newest first | Oldest first

    READER COMMENTS

    Eric Smith
    6/06/2012 10:21:27 AM

    Buy local. Support Local Farmers... The Greens have been saying this since before they formed a political party... Its not rocket science!

    POST A COMMENT


    Screen name *
    Email address *
    Remember me?
    Comment *
     

    COMMENTS

    light grey arrow
    The RSPCA (NSW) should use some of the reported $50 millkion it has in investment accounts to do
    light grey arrow
    I'm convinced now Bushie Bill lives in Glebe. I don't think he has a clue as to what happens in
    light grey arrow
    govt has to stop expecting agriculture to sell on a world market income, yet buy on a