Concerns around the rising costs of living have featured strongly in political debate during the federal election campaign. The humble lettuce became the symbolic centre of political commentary and the idea that it could cost the same as a cup of coffee raised eyebrows across the nation.
We know that fruit and vegetable prices have gone up largely because supply chains have been severely affected by the COVID pandemic, floods, and international conflict which have led to the loss of farm workers and escalating fertiliser, fuel, and transport costs. Farmers have for the most part been absorbing these increasing input costs, with very little additional returns at the farm gate.
Data tells us the fruit and vegetables are costing, on average, 6.7 per cent more than this time last year but interestingly takeaway foods only went up by around 0.7pc.
However, I would argue that our farmers and our food systems have been facing increasing pressures for some time. Costs such as supply chain regulation, food safety compliance, biosecurity and environmental management, extreme climate impacts and workforce issues are all having an impact at farm gate.
Ironically while the COVID pandemic focused our attention on public health and resulted in a high level of response at all levels of government, ensuring sustainable farming and food systems that support healthy, affordable diets for all seems to be something governments struggle to get their heads around.
Australians are now eating less than half the recommended daily five serves of vegetables and this has been steadily declining since 2001. Low consumer demand domestically has become a significant problem impacting our farmers and impacting the economic, health and wellbeing of all Australians.
This problem starts on farm undermining the confidence of growers and having a ripple effect across the fresh food supply chain. The problem directly contributes to regional economies and carries through to Australian families making poor dietary choices based on cost, which is impacting our mental and physical wellbeing. Poor diets nationally are contributing to increased obesity and chronic diseases which is in turn putting enormous pressure on our health system at an increasingly alarming cost to us all.
So, the humble head of lettuce is not just a symbol of cost-of-living increases and inflationary pressures but is representative of a much more concerning issue and the fact that we are just not doing enough to make healthy diets affordable in Australia.
Creating an operating environment that supports sustainable farming is an important part of the solution and is critical not only to a strong economic future for agriculture, but vital to the future health of the Australian people.
Failure to respond to the underlying issues that are contributing to rising food costs in this country will in the long run affect us all. Agriculture will be part of the post COVID economic recovery, but as a nation we need to make sure farmers are a valued part of the future health and wellbeing of the Australian people.
Australian food and fresh produce are in demand around the world. It is about time we valued it here at home and it is incumbent upon whichever side of politics wins the election this weekend to work with agriculture to ensure sustainability for our farmers. The future prosperity and wellbeing of Australians depends upon it.
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