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$12 lettuces: Floods prompt calls for minister for food

Floods causing damage to fruit trees and shopper in Woolworths
Produce is likely to remain expensive in supermarkets due to flooding in NSW. (Source: Getty)

The latest wave of destruction to farmland caused by flooding in NSW has prompted calls for a minister for food to focus on improving the resilience of Australia’s domestic food supplies.

Fruit and vegetable prices have been soaring due to floods earlier in the year, while cold weather is also hurting crop yields, with shoppers confronted with $12 lettuces and other outrageously high prices.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers told Channel Nine the latest floods were likely to limit supply for longer, which would keep the cost of groceries high.

“Grocery prices, including fruit and vegetables, are already going through the roof and this will make it more difficult,” Chalmers said.

Food security expert from the University of Melbourne Rachel Carey agreed flooding in NSW was likely to inflate food prices further.

She said the latest floods added to stressors on crops from previous floods, storms and bad weather that had been pummeling production.

Carey also said agriculture was taking a hit from the conflict in Ukraine, which was driving up the cost of fertiliser, oil and animal feed, as well as labour shortages triggered by COVID.

“What we're really seeing at the moment, in terms of impact on food prices, is a combination of multiple shocks and stresses, with compounding effects,” Carey said.

She said several long-term stressors were unlikely to go away any time soon, which were likely to keep upward pressure on food prices.

Top of that list is climate change. At the height of the Millennium Drought between 2005 and 2007, vegetable prices increased by around 33 per cent and fruit went up over 43 per cent.

“So it’s not just the impact of floods that we need to think about,” Carey said.

She also said competition for land and water was increasing, which was limiting the ability to grow food.

A minister for food

At a policy level, Carey said there needed to be a stronger focus on domestic food supply.

She’d like to see a minister responsible and accountable for food resilience to work alongside the Agriculture Minister, who was usually more focused on food exports and the productivity of the industry.

“We have a narrative in Australia that we are a food-secure country because of the amount of food that we produce and export,” she said.

”I think that narrative masks a number of vulnerabilities in our own food supply that we need to start paying attention to.”

Food-relief organisations have been struggling to meet growing demand for their services, with the numbers of people seeking food relief on the rise.

Carey said the focus was always on how much food Australia was producing and exporting.

“In terms of rising food prices, I think we need to pay more attention to our own food security here in Australia and not only about how much food we're producing,” Carey said.

“We should be focused on whether people are able to access that food, and whether people can actually afford to buy it.”

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