Australia’s January flood crisis that has left thousands homeless and inundated communities in the eastern states of Queensland and Victoria has also destroyed and damaged food crops in some of the nation’s most fertile growing regions and disrupted food distribution across the nation, raising questions about the centralized food system.
Following weeks of unseasonal rain, the floods have been the last straw in a difficult season for growers. One of the hardest hit areas, and where floods have also seen the loss of life, was the Lockyer Valley in southern Queensland, west of Brisbane – known as the state’s ‘salad bowl’. Across the state, crop losses are estimated at 3 billion dollars and in many areas that were isolated by the floods, supermarket shelves dried up quickly.
Northeast of Brisbane in the Mary Valley, the impact on the dozens of artisan small-scale food producers participating in Slow Food’s Terra Madre network is yet to be understood, as most residents are still without phone or internet and have also been physically cut off by landslides on roads.
Julie Shelton, coordinator of the Mary Valley food community and leader of the local Slow Food Sunshine Coast Hinterland Convivium, had been unable to contact most of the producers at this stage, but commented that in addition to the immediate affects of income loss, massive cleanup and in some cases personal tragedy, there would be some long lasting agricultural impacts. One producer, whose established avocado trees look like they are dying off, said he would leave his production rather than face re-establishing the orchard.
Even those who have produce to sell and are able to move around face difficulties. “Two of our cheese producers were at the first post-flood farmers’ market last week in Brisbane, but the site had been fully submerged and is still covered in mud, making it very difficult for shoppers,” said Shelton. “Producers with short shelf life produce are struggling in particular… its a total disruption.”
The government is encouraging retailers to think long-term and support farmers who have supplied them previously by buying local-grown products even if they are less visually appealing due to flood damage. The two biggest supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, are currently selling some water-damaged crops, but are weighing up whether to favor imports and keep prices down.
“The major supermarkets that control the Australian market are beginning to substitute fresh produce with imports, which will make it harder for local farmers to return to their previous contracts,” said Shelton. “The quantity of cheaper imported foods in Australia has been growing quickly, and the floods could provide an excuse to transfer more buying from local to international markets.”
“On the positive side, what this issue has raised is that we have a very unresilient food system, as it is so centralized. In the days following the flooding, my local supermarket basically had no fresh produce on the shelf, even though there are food producers in the region who were not affected. It is not appropriate to go back to the status quo prior to the floods – we need to build local food networks.”
Speaking on Brisbane ABC Radio, Robert Pekin from Food Connect, a community program delivering fresh produce from small farmers directly to subscribing consumers in the Brisbane area, also spoke about the how the post-flood period had showed the benefits of a localized food system with a capacity and resilience built through close relationships and flexibility.
Food Connect was actually able to continue some distribution of fresh produce in areas that the big suppliers couldn’t reach. “This was the big test,” said Pekin. “This experience has showed the benefit of bypassing the major distribution companies. Our farmers’ losses, especially the smaller farms, were very small. The resilience in this local food system, being small, quick and based on local knowledge really showed itself up through this event… And we’ve not had price increases at this stage, as we already pay much more to the farmers - around 59% of retail price last year compared to the normal 15 or 20%.”
In Brisbane, which was flooded over large areas, local Slow Food convivium leader Yvonne Webb said that one of the city’s farmers’ markets was able to run again last week, and while many producers weren’t there, a surprising number did turn up, albeit with greatly limited supplies: very small produce, and for instant consumption due to access and storage problems.
“Farmers are greatly worried that they have lost all of their topsoil,” said Webb. “For consumers, prices are up and choice is down and many farmers have said they haven’t been able to plant their winter crops, so the problems will continue. More rain is forecast until May with possible continued flooding, so we expect ongoing problems”.
Further south in the state of Victoria, the Slow Food Melbourne Farmers’ Market had one of its busiest days last Saturday, despite the fact that many producers have been severely affected by flooding and unseasonal heavy rains in surrounding rural areas. Heirloom and organic vegetable growers from central Victoria reported that while some crops were simply unable to be planted due to the rain, others were about six or eight weeks behind meaning they may not get a chance to mature.
Slow Food Melbourne leader and market organizer Alison Peake said that many stallholders had been affected and had lost crops and faced large clean-ups. In some areas the floods moved equipment, debris, furniture and even animals over kilometers and dumped them in fields and vineyards.
“The stallholders have regular and loyal customers who do identify as friends and would go the extra mile to help and support the farmers… we saw this last year after the bushfires,” said Peake. “We haven't made any plans about flood relief yet, but we encourage people to buy whatever farmers have to sell to help them through natural disaster or unseasonal weather. Money can’t replace everything that has been lost, like topsoil, which will be years in the regeneration. Working bees would be one good way to help farmers get their properties back into order.”
The depth of destruction and loss caused by the floods in Queensland and Victoria, which are continuing in many areas, has left many in the area wondering how to help. Slow Food Canberra Convivum has already made a donation to Slow Food Sunshine Coast Hinterland to be distributed to producers in the area immediately to help them through the weeks while they wait for government assistance to arrive. If you would like to make a donation to this cause please contact the convivium leader in one of the affected areas:
Sunshine Coast Hinterland: Julie Shelton
phone: +61 (0) 439 944 690
Brisbane Convivium leader: Yvonne Webb
phone: +61 7 3848 3563
Melbourne Convivium leader: Alison Peake
phone: +61 3 9318 0367