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.