Higher prices and food shortages to hit Australia as climate crisis worsens

Australians face higher prices for food, and more frequent food shortages, as the worsening impacts of climate change dents agricultural production and disrupt supply chains.

The threat has been detailed in a new report from Farmers for Climate Action, which says it is not just Australia’s ability to produce food that is at threat, but the inability to transport food to where it is needed could also become a common experience.

“Some of the impacts are being felt already. During the first two months of 2022 much of central and northern Australia experienced food shortages due to the combined impact of flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report says.

“The problem was not lack of food – there was plenty available on farms or in warehouses – but disruption to the supply chain required for its distribution.”

The report has been authored by economist and former deputy secretary of the department of finance, Stephen Bartos. In the report, Bartos details how the worsening impacts of climate change will increase the risk of food shortages and will push the price of food higher.

The predicted impacts of climate change on Australia, including the increased frequency of drought, bushfire and flooding, could cause otherwise productive agricultural regions to become unviable for farmers.

“Australians take it for granted that food will always be available. Climate change disrupts this. It creates and amplifies risks all the way through the supply chain, from farm to warehouse to supermarket shelves,” Bartos said.

“Some farmers have already had to sell and shift to areas with more reliable rainfall which raises the issue of stranded assets, as packing houses and processors set up in specific regions where specific produce is currently grown such as dairy processing factories.”

The report was commissioned by Farmers for Climate Action, which has called on governments to ramp up efforts to both reduce Australia’s contributions to global warming, and to invest in improving the resilience of Australia’s agricultural sector.

The group said its latest report highlighted the potential impacts of climate change across Australia’s entire food supply chain.

“The report shows climate change is already disrupting every part of the food supply chain, from extreme heat and lack of water on farms to food packing facilities, transport links and the cost of farmers accessing insurance, finance and fertiliser,” Farmers for Climate Action CEO Fiona Davis said.

“As Australia heats further, these impacts will grow and consumers will pay more for food. More lost food, less grass for farmers’ livestock to eat, less water and less days to transport livestock – which cannot be transported in extreme heat – mean consumers pay more for food.”

But with predictions of rising temperatures, worsening droughts, and an increase in the frequency of major disruptive events like floods and bushfires, Farmers for Climate Action says it will become increasingly more difficult to both sustainably produce food in Australia as well as ensure consumers have reliable access to food supplies.

“Getting produce off farm and into supermarkets, and ultimately Aussie homes becomes difficult or impossible to deliver when multiple events coincide,” Davis added. “We saw this earlier this year in northern and central Australia early this year when record floods cut off roads and rail links during the COVID pandemic.”

“Right now our thoughts are with people impacted by the Queensland and northern New South Wales floods as they grapple with the flood response, while also trying to secure essential food supplies.”

“We need to act quickly to make our supply chains more robust, but ultimately to address the key driver of these difficulties, we need deep emissions cuts this decade to protect our farmers and our food supply chain.”

The report serves as somewhat of a counterpoint to some of the arguments used against Australia ramping up climate change action – particularly those used by deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce.

Joyce and other Nationals MPs have long claimed impacts of climate action – such as the introduction of a price on carbon emissions – would have a detrimental impact on Australia’s agricultural industry.

Joyce once famously claimed the Gillard government’s carbon price would lead to “$100 roasts.”

But as the new report from the Farmers for Climate Action highlights, failure to act on climate change will have an even greater negative impact on Australia’s ability to produce food, as well as deliver it to Australian consumers during more frequent extreme weather events.

Michael Mazengarb is a Sydney-based reporter with RenewEconomy, writing on climate change, clean energy, electric vehicles and politics. Before joining RenewEconomy, Michael worked in climate and energy policy for more than a decade.

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