Rice sold out at Robina Coles. Photo: Facebook
Rice sold out at Robina Coles. Photo: Facebook

Fears for basic grocery item shortage

With the daily number of confirmed coronavirus cases in decline, Australians are eagerly looking towards a future where social distancing and toilet paper shortages are a distant memory.

While most industries will look vastly different post-pandemic, experts are now concerned Australia's food security could be threatened.

According to water and irrigation experts, Australia risks a shortage of rice and other staples as a direct result of mismanagement of water in the Murray Darling Basin.

 

"Rice is definitely a big risk because we haven't been using the water we've got to grow rice, and we've been importing around 95 per cent of our rice over the last two years," Maryanne Slattery, director of water consultancy firm Slattery and Johnson, tells 60 Minutes tonight.

After one of the worst drought seasons, Australia's rice producers can no longer meet demand. Picture: Nine/60 Minutes.
After one of the worst drought seasons, Australia's rice producers can no longer meet demand. Picture: Nine/60 Minutes.

After one of the worst droughts in living memory, Australia's rice industry, which is reliant on heavy irrigation, can no longer meet national demand.

The rice shortage has been exacerbated by a steep hike in water prices in the Murray Darling Basin, which includes Australia's rice "capital" Leeton in the Riverina district in southwestern NSW.

Australia's biggest rice supplier SunRice produced its second lowest rice crop last year - 54,000 tonnes compared with 623,000 tonnes in 2018.

The crop that will be harvested this winter will be smaller than last year's.

Maryanne Slattery believes rethinking Australia's water management is the first step in a long hard process. Picture: Nine/60 Minutes.
Maryanne Slattery believes rethinking Australia's water management is the first step in a long hard process. Picture: Nine/60 Minutes.

 

The 60 Minutes report comes after Nationals Senator Perin Davey reassured Australians that our food supply will be largely unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, the rice-growing industry "is the exception" she said.

Earlier this week, Ms Davey told Sky News several years of drought meant the rice harvest from NSW-Murray growers dropped from an average of 800,000 tonnes per year to about 55,000.

"Normally our rice industry is well equipped to deal with the peaks and troughs of rice production because it is so dependent on water," said Ms Davey.

The decision from Vietnam (Australia's largest source of imported rice) to no longer export rice due to the coronavirus pandemic has "thrown another spanner in the works".

"Because of COVID-19 a lot of countries are protecting their own interests, which is their right and is sensible to do," Ms Davey said.

With other countries keen to preserve their own food security, Ms Slattery suggests Australia do the same.

"A lot of the water in the southern Murray Darling Basin is being used to irrigate nuts rather than rice and dairy," Ms Slattery said.

"So it is quite possible that water is just redirected away from nuts, that are exported mostly anyway, to rice and dairy and other commodities that we see as important."

Aussie farmers doing it tough are echoing the same sentiments, insisting now is the time to urgently rethink Australia's water management.

"We're actually relying on other countries to supply us staples, rice, dairy, and wheat," Southern Murray wheat farmer Chris Brooks told 60 Minutes. He's endured two years of zero-water allocations.

"If they turn the tap on, we can produce food. It's that simple," he said.

"We don't want money. Just give us our water back."

Wheat farmer Chris Brooks. Picture: Nine/60 Minutes
Wheat farmer Chris Brooks. Picture: Nine/60 Minutes

 

60 Minutes airs tonight on Channel 9 at the special time of 7pm.

Originally published as Fears for basic grocery item shortage

Empty shelves in the rice and pasta aisle at your local Coles may soon be the reality, if Australia’s water management isn’t revised. Photo: Facebook
Empty shelves in the rice and pasta aisle at your local Coles may soon be the reality, if Australia’s water management isn’t revised. Photo: Facebook


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