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Tropical Cyclone Debbie has blown a hole in the winter vegetable supply

Cyclone Debbie, which lashed the Queensland coast a week ago, has hit farmers hard in the area around Bowen – a crucial supplier of vegetables to Sydney, Melbourne and much of eastern Australia.

With the Queensland Farmers’ Federation estimating the damage at more than A$100 million and winter crop losses at 20%, the event looks set to affect the cost and availability of fresh food for millions of Australians. Growers are reportedly forecasting a price spike in May, when the damaged crops were scheduled to have arrived on shelves.

The incident also raises broader questions about the resilience of Australia’s fresh vegetable supply, much of which comes from a relatively small number of areas that are under pressure from climate and land use change.

In 2011 the Bowen area produced 33% of Australia’s fresh beans, 46% of capsicum and 23% of fresh tomatoes, making it the country’s largest producer of beans and capsicums, and number two in fresh tomatoes.

The region also produces a significant amount of chillies, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, pumpkin, zucchini and squash, and is a key production area for mangoes and melons.

Coastal Queensland’s vegetable regions are among the highest-producing in the country, especially for perishable vegetables. The Whitsunday region around Bowen, and the area around Bundaberg further south are each responsible for around 13% of the national perishable vegetable supply.

As the chart below shows, vegetable production is highly concentrated in particular regions, typically on the fringes of large cities. These “peri-urban” regions, when added to the two major growing areas in coastal Queensland, account for about 75% of Australia’s perishable vegetables.

Proportion of State Perishable Vegetable Production by weight
Proportion of State Perishable Vegetable Production by weight. ABS 7121.0 Agricultural Commodities Australia, 2010-11

Australia’s climate variability means that most fresh produce can be grown domestically. The seasonable variability allows production to move from the south to the north in the winter, when the Bundaberg and Bowen areas produce most of the winter vegetables consumed in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The Bowen Gumlu Growers Association estimates that during the spring growing season in September—October, the region produces 90% of Australia’s fresh tomatoes and 95% of capsicums.

Besides damaging crops, Cyclone Debbie has also destroyed many growers’ packing and cool storage sheds. The cost of rebuilding this infrastructure may be too much for many farmers, and the waterlogged soils are also set to make planting the next crop more difficult.

The recovery of production in these areas is crucial for the supply. Growers who have lost their May crop will first have to wait until the paddocks dry out, then source new seedlings and plant them. It could be weeks until crops can be replanted, and storage and processing facilities replaced.

The Queensland government has announced natural disaster relief funding, including concessional loans of up to A$250,000 and essential working capital loans of up to A$100,000, to help farmers replant and rebuild.

Meanwhile, consumers of fresh vegetables in Sydney and Melbourne and many other places are likely to find themselves paying more until the shortfall can be replaced.

Fresh food for growing cities

Australia’s cities are growing rapidly, along with those of many other countries. The United Nations has predicted that by 2050 about 87% of the world’s population will live in cities. This urban expansion is putting ever more pressure on peri-urban food bowls.

Food production is also under pressure from climate change, raising the risk of future food shocks and price spikes in the wake of disasters such as cyclones. Meanwhile, the desire for semi-rural lifestyles is also conflicting with the use of land for farming (see Sydney’s Food Futures and Foodprint Melbourne for more).

These pressures mean that Australia’s cities need to make their food systems more resilient, so that they can withstand food shocks more easily, and recover more quickly.

Key features of a resilient food system are likely to include:

  • geographic diversity in production, which spreads the risk of crop damage from extreme weather events across a number of different production areas;
  • more local food production, to reduce transportation and storage costs and avoid over-reliance on particular regions;
  • a diverse, healthy and innovative farming community;
  • greater consumer awareness of the importance of seasonal and locally produced food;
  • recycling of urban waste and water for use on farms, to reduce the use of fresh water and fertilisers;
  • the capacity to import food from overseas to meet shortfalls in domestic supply;
  • increased use of protected cropping systems such as greenhouses, which are better able to withstand adverse weather.

Two recent studies of food production around Sydney and Melbourne provide examples of a range of mechanisms and policies for increasing the resilience of the food systems of Australian cities.

Our food system has served us well until now, but land use pressures and climate change will make it harder in future. When a cyclone can knock out a major production region overnight, with knock-on effects for Australian consumers, this points to a lack of resilience in Australia’s fresh vegetable supply.

This article was first published on The Conversation. You can view the original here.

Have you been impacted by Cyclone Debbie? You can learn more about Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements here.

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2 Responses

    Debbie has dealt a severe blow to the Bowen region, there is absolutely no question that ongoing effects across the horticultural sector and local community in general will last for months. Growers will rethink early season plantings and even potentially changes to crops grown may be warranted, this will all come down to the new reality of managing climate resilience. Some positives have come out of this event, firstly how strongly this community came together is amazing, people forget old boundaries very quickly in the face of adversity. Culturally one stand out has been the resilience of fields with plastic mulch laid prior the cyclone and left to get weedy in the interrow, these survived intact and allowed quick access to planting seedlings, a lesson learned perhaps. Grower resilience is also a standout with some planting again in less than a week after having to lift damaged plastic , rework the ground and relay the mulch and irrigation tape, the best thing we can do is get out of their way. We grow in these areas due to one thing and that is climate, 100km to the south or north of Bowen and horticultural production is limited due to higher rainfall patterns so redistributing the industry faces limited potential. The task ahead will be to develop the science and then agronomy around climate resilience and to put in place the infrastructure to deal with risk. Bowen needs water, there is another 15000Ha of highly productive land available for production but no water to support it. We have had a cavalcade of politicians through the region this last week and not one has seen the bigger picture, resilience comes through strong infrastructure and the most important is water. The state and federal reps want a 40% increase in production and all insist that we develop export capacity yet none will deliver the water we need to achieve increases in production or the economic resilience to survive events such as Debbie. Pushing a broom across a flooded floor for a quick photo op is not the answer.

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