Thinking local food for thought

14 June 2024

International trends show the benefits of local production and consumption. 

In this global economy with its emphasis on export revenue growth, it is easy to overlook just how important local production for our local market is. 

The recent bird flu outbreak on mainland Australia is a case in point. Mainland states are undergoing restrictions on the number of eggs individual customers can purchase, where here in Tasmania with no bird flu and nearly 100 per cent of our eggs grown locally - it's business as usual. 

The same is the case nationally, Australian grown fresh and frozen vegetables are often under threat from overseas imports where it is claimed they can be grown and processed cheaper than here. 

In times of cost-of-living pressures becoming increasingly difficult, cheaper prices and market pressures often prevail to the detriment of our Australian growers and their communities. 

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That is until overseas conditions change, and those markets can't produce enough to supply their own, let alone trespass into ours here. 

For example, one of the world's greatest vegetable growing regions, the Snake River Valley in Idaho US, is under increasing pressure as irrigation supplies on 192,000ha of good farmland are due to be suspended owing to new environmental regulations for ground water. 

Much of this land is committed to processing potato growing. 

This is while the Snake River Valley is currently experiencing a wetter than average season, yet groundwater irrigators (termed minor irrigators) have been advised that water supply agreements will likely be terminated prior to the end of their current potato growing season. 

It is reported that the US, in general, has a very good potato crop in 2023, but contracted and uncontracted prices for growers in 2024 are expected to be quite low and may not encourage growers to commit. 

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Supply for their local markets therefore will be under pressure, let alone considering any export volumes out of the US. 

In Europe, the Netherlands has experienced significant potato crop losses due to a wetter than average season, restricting supply out of that jurisdiction and leading to increasing prices within Europe, where those same wet conditions are preventing normal planting operations with an expected drop in yields. 

For example, Lithuania is predicting low yields in the order of 15.7 metric tonnes to the hectare (MT/HA) while Belgium, with better growing conditions, is expecting around 43.5 MT/HA. 

International shipping woes further slows capacity and throughput. 

International shipping capacity restrictions are further compounding lower commodity production across the northern hemisphere, making the business case for vegetable export even more tenuous. 

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Tensions in the Red Sea continue to escalate with terrorist activities targeting shipping with missiles and direct attacks and continuing dry conditions in the Panama Canal also slowing throughput. 

Many shipping companies are avoiding the Red Sea and Panama Canal for safety reasons, which is adding significantly to sea time and costs. 

Further compounding delays in sea freight are port restrictions where many ships are waiting up to seven days to access port facilities, with Singapore the worst, with an average of 75 ships waiting to access the port. Some shipping lines are opting to bypass Singapore, adding further to bottlenecks in other ports across the globe. 

This is adding to local frustrations as farmers wait for new machinery, parts for existing ones or other key requirements for their farms. 

Tasmania's forte is fresh produce grown in the best soils and with the best farming expertise. 

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While that does not make us immune from import pressures, it does reinforce that the Tasmanian vegetable industry is incredibly important to the long term national food supply chain. 

It is easy to take the "cheapest is best" route when overseas supply is strong, but when that supply fails, we will always need to rely upon our local growers to keep local supermarket shelves full.