Consumers will be forced to pay more for essential foods as a result of bushfires and drought, the government has warned, while imploring supermarkets to “stump up” and help struggling farmers.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stood beside Minister for Agriculture Bridget McKenzie as she repeatedly emphasised that consumers would have to shell out for fresh food staples including fruit, vegetables, milk and meat.
“In terms of prices for food, you might have seen reporting that supermarkets are letting the Australian public know that they’ll have to pay more for their red meat. Yes, you will,” she said.
That they’ll have to pay more for their fruit and vegetables because of the bushfires and the drought. Yes, you will.
“The supermarkets also need to let the Australian public know that, because of the bushfires and the drought, you will have to pay more for your milk.”
The National Party deputy leader pointed the finger at the big supermarkets, demanding that they “not just talk about being the fresh food people but get on with supporting” farmers that are “doing it tough”.
“Processors are doing the right thing by farmers by actually paying milk cheques when in many cases they’re not getting the product,” Senator McKenzie said.
It’s up to the supermarkets to not just talk about being the fresh food people but get on with supporting, in a very real and tangible way. Because farmers don’t grow food for free…They need to make a living.
“That means we need to pay the cost of producing the food.”
Drought and bushfires are “severely impacting” farmers and processors, “so the other end of the supply chain needs to stump up”, Senator McKenzie said.
There are 19,000 “primary producers, farmers, fishers and foresters” within the impacted areas, she said.
They have decimated crops, tainted vineyards, destroyed feed, and forced dairy farmers to pour thousands of litres of milk down the drain.
According to the Meat and Livestock Association, 9 per cent of the national cattle herd and 13 per cent of the national sheep flock are located in “significantly impacted regions”.
Supermarkets at odds with government over price rises
Senator McKenzie’s claim that consumers will have to pay more for fresh food was not echoed by the nation’s major supermarket chains.
A spokesperson for Woolworths, the nation’s biggest supermarket chain, told The New Daily that the company was “actively monitoring the impact of the bushfires on our fresh food supply chain with our suppliers”.
At this stage, we have yet to see an impact on our fresh food supply because of bushfires,” Woolworths said.
However, the spokesperson said it was “still early days”.
“If there are farmers within our supply chain impacted by bushfires, we will be happy to discuss the ways in which we can support them to get back on their feet,” they said.
A spokesperson for Coles, the nation’s second biggest supermarket chain, told The New Daily that some products, particularly in fresh produce, “may be unavailable or in limited supply in the short term”.
Many of our suppliers have been directly impacted by the fires and drought and we’re working hard to support them during this difficult time,” a Coles spokesperson said.
Coles, which has been sourcing its Own Brand fresh milk directly from dairy farmers in Victoria and New South Wales since July, said that none of its contracted farmers had been “directly impacted” by the current fires.
“However, we are in regular contact with them and will provide further assistance if required,” the spokesperson said.
Last month, the competition watchdog alleged that Coles had short-changed drought-stricken dairy farmers by millions of dollars.
Australia’s third biggest supermarket chain, German discount juggernaut Aldi, said it did not foresee prices changing for consumers.
At this point, despite operational challenges that some of our suppliers face, we don’t foresee an impact on consumer prices.” Aldi
IBISWorld senior industry analyst Tom Youl told The New Daily that the ongoing bushfires would undoubtedly lead to some higher prices, but it is too early to tell which crops have been worst-hit.
“We’re likely to see some modest price rises across the board, in terms of both meat and fruit and vegetables,” Mr Youl said.
“We’ve already seen some prices for things like avocados and tomatoes, even lettuce, go up by as much as 20 per cent. But that’s as much as to do with supply constraints, with so many roads being closed down due to the fires and trees falling over roads.”
On Tuesday, the head of the vegetable industry’s peak body warned that vegetable prices could skyrocket by up to 50 per cent.
AUSVEG chief executive James Whiteside told the ABC that the cost of popular veggies including cauliflower, broccoli, rocket, spinach, potatoes and pumpkin could increase substantially.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see prices moving up between 20 per cent and 50 per cent,” he said.
“Those sort of larger increases are unlikely to be sustainable, but consumers will see a range of higher prices across pretty well everything.”