August 2022

The Nation Reviewed

Food (in)security

By Esther Linder
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Australia’s supply-chain network is at more risk than ever before

Leaving Darwin, you drive along a three-lane highway that’s lined with industrial estates, supermarkets, furniture stores and megabrands. It’s a colossal stretch of concrete, plastic signage and petrol stations that repeat in conformity as theoretical suburbs pass you by. Everyone drives a white RAV4 or a ute with huge bull bars that are not meant to repel kangaroos, but water buffalo. Huge road trains roar alongside. If you’re lucky enough to have air conditioning, the shock of the warm air never fades each time you go outside.

Once you get past Coolalinga, about 25 minutes out, you’re on your own. And you better have packed something to eat. There are only two supermarkets on the Stuart Highway between you and Alice Springs, 1500 kilometres away.

This is the route taken by most of the food grown in the Northern Territory, a warm and humid environment perfect for fruit such as mangoes, worth $128.8 million in production in 2019. Almost everything grown on farms around Darwin is loaded onto road trains and trucked 3000 kilometres – 22 degrees of latitude – to Adelaide to be processed.

It’s the same story around the country – centralised systems of supply mean that produce grown in one area gets sent to another for processing, then sold somewhere else. These tentacles are not circular, meaning that when interruptions happen there is no recourse to locally grown, locally sold. Instead, many go without.

Not even halfway on your journey to Alice you pass through Katherine, the place where Jawoyn, Dagoman and Wardaman Countries meet. Lethargy defines Katherine, whether you’re wandering the streets in the dry season heat or floating down the slow current of the hot springs at the edge of town. Everything moves slowly. Around ten and half thousand people live in Katherine, and most shop at the local Woolworths.

It sounded like the kind of thing you’d get told at the pub three beers deep, but more than one person I met there claimed that the Woolies in Katherine was the busiest supermarket in the country. In such a small town, it seemed an extraordinary claim. But something about it made me stop.

The economics of food in Australia is incredibly dependent on where you live, what you earn and who you are. In places such as the Northern Territory, the lack of options when buying food – most acutely seen in remote Aboriginal communities – has far-reaching impacts.

This was illustrated best when the Stuart Highway, the aorta linking the territory to southern Australia, Adelaide and much of the south-east, was cut off near Coober Pedy by extensive flooding. High water meant trucking was interrupted, with some road trains being redirected almost 3000 kilometres via New South Wales and Queensland, causing food shortages across the territory. Despite the number of farms in the Top End, fresh produce was hard to come by for several weeks.

Professor Lauren Rickards, director of the Urban Futures platform at RMIT in Melbourne and lead author of the Australasia chapter in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, defines these sorts of events as a kind of x-ray of our food systems, showing just how fragile and brittle they can be.

“Violent shocks like these illustrate this bigger problem that we have, which is a lack of resilient systems,” Rickards says. As the impact of climate change grows every year, and inflation rises while wages stagnate, what and how we eat is going to change.

“It’s incredibly unsettling and frightening when something as everyday and basic as food is not available,” she says.

However, supermarkets such as Coles and Woolworths have propagated the idea that a standard (if ever-expanding) range of items should always be available in every one of their stores. Mangoes are trucked from the Northern Territory and sold in Melbourne during summer. Lettuce, which is predominantly grown in South-East Queensland, was recently priced at $11 a head. The demands of the market push further and further into absurdity.

It means farmers, manufacturers and distributors are constantly at the mercy of the (supermarket) machine in order to provide goods year round, in perfect condition, and without consideration for the ballooning number of climate-related natural disasters. Rickards describes this relationship as one where questions of public good, such as avoiding food waste or advocating for nutritional health, are submerged by other considerations, namely those of corporate profit.

“Food has become less and less of an essential service or key requirement of life, and more a commodity to be bought and sold,” says Dr Douglas Bardsley, associate professor in geography, environment and population at Adelaide University. The neoliberal notion of markets in competition becomes a moot point in communities such as Katherine, where there are no other options for groceries within 1000 kilometres.

Market standardisation, where a Pink Lady apple is meant to look the same whether you pick it up from a shelf in Margaret River or Townsville, has also become the norm. But, as shown by programs such as the ABC’s War on Waste, this leads to incredible amounts of food wastage as vegetables must meet increasingly high aesthetic standards or else be thrown out.

It also signifies a broader divorce from reality: no longer being aware of seasons, we expect apples to be ever-present upon supermarket shelves because they have been marketed as a standard item in the food catalogue.

The problem is that our food systems don’t have the space and scope to cope with disruptions, which both Rickards and Bardsley believe will become more common. Increasing greenhouse-gas emissions and resource strain caused by the demands of a centralised food system mean that the nation’s health, economy and underlying wellbeing will only continue to be further affected.

These shocks – floods, bushfires, cyclones and more – are becoming less isolated, more intersecting and tending to compound as climate change accelerates and food networks are increasingly impacted. In other words, if we don’t adapt, the next time will be worse.

“These shocks can be positive,” Rickards says, “if they allow us to see with fresh eyes the unfair systems we’ve created, and positively shift them.”

As floods tear through the east of the country, wiping out months of work on farms across New South Wales, the question is whether we will even have time to do so.

Esther Linder

Esther Linder is a photojournalist based in Melbourne.

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