The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the need for Australia to reconsider its reliance on other countries, especially China.
While the pandemic is having an immediate effect on how Australians live their everyday lives, its consequences are spreading wider.
For Riverina farmer Jon Gatacre, it has thrown up unexpected challenges as he prepares to sow winter crops after an excellent autumn break.
Mr Gatacre has been waiting a month for the delivery of Roundup, a herbicide which he desperately needs to maximum crop production.
“We’ve had the best autumn break in years, but spraying out weeds before sowing winter cereals is critical. Weeds compete for moisture and nutrients with the seed and young crops, which slows growth and reduces yield,” Mr Gatacre said.
“It is essential the crops get the best possible start.”
Fertilizer is another important input for winter cereals to ensure they reach full potential but is it also in short supply.
“We rely too heavily on imports for these vital ingredients to a successful crop. Now, with import and trade restrictions due to COVID-19, we are having trouble accessing vital farm inputs.
“We need to learn lessons from this pandemic; we must become more self reliant,” Mr Gatacre said.
As a food producer he is also concerned about the shortages being experienced on supermarket shelves.
“While the pandemic is partly to blame it is not the entire reason,” he said.
“If you look at crop data over the past eight years, it tells us there have been significant declines since the Murray-Darling Basin Plan implementation started.
“This is partly due to lower rainfall, however we cannot underestimate the impact on food production from the Basin Plan. Our forefathers built the world’s leading gravity-feed irrigation system in the Southern Riverina to drought proof our region and ensure we could continue growing food for domestic and international consumption. Instead, the current government sends vast quantities of water out to sea or watches while it is wasted through unintentional flooding.
“As a consequence, now we cannot even put enough food on our own supermarket shelves. I get frustrated when the Agriculture Minister spruiks that we can grow enough food for 75 million people. That may have been the case in the past, but not any more.
“Take rice, as an example. We have the most efficient rice farmers in the world and the largest rice mill in the southern hemisphere, yet it’s almost closed because there has been virtually no crop for two years. As a result, SunRice is trying to import rice, whereas in the past the majority of what we grew was exported. Over the last two years we have also seen an increase in wheat and dairy imports.
“As we work our way through the pandemic we need to reset some policies and priorities. From a food producer’s perspective, one of these needs to be a discussion about the importance of ensuring we can grow enough staple foods.
“The crisis has highlighted our dependence on other countries for simple and essential agricultural inputs such as chemicals. It has also highlighted the importance of providing our farmers with water, which is the ingredient they must have to grow the basics for our kitchen tables.
“In some regional communities there have been massive job losses, which occurs when you take water from food production. Australia needs to learn from the pandemic; we must develop policy which protects our food security, while at the same time creating jobs and wealth.
“We have to manufacture essential products in our own back yard, not constantly rely on other countries. At present we are showing an amazing resilience and a determination to beat the coronavirus.
“As we move forward, let’s also learn some lessons that will help our future generations.”