Lockdown Forces Australian Farmers to Destroy Millions of Dollars in Produce

A windmill pokes above a canola crop near Harden, 350 kms. (217 miles) south west of Sydney, Sept. 17, 2020. Australia is forecast to reap record revenue from farming this year despite pandemic challenges, a mouse plague and a trade dispute with China, according to a report released on Tuesday, …
Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP

Australian farmers are destroying millions of dollars worth of fresh produce because strict coronavirus lockdowns are depriving them of the labor needed to harvest the food, and their customers lack the labor necessary to deliver produce to store shelves, Australia’s the Age reported Wednesday.

Emma Germano, president of the Victorian Farmers Federation, described the waste of food and financial damage to farmers as “heartbreaking” and “obscene.” She told of one farmer who had to destroy a million dollars in tomatoes and cucumbers because the customer, a major supermarket chain, did not have enough workers to receive the food and stock the shelves.

Another farmer quoted by the Age said was forced to plow over 30 percent of his weekly harvest because 20 percent of his employees either called in sick with the coronavirus or are under isolation.

Fruit farmers complained their produce is piling up in warehouses because retailers are canceling their orders, and huge volumes of fruit will soon have to be destroyed.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this before and we are a fourth-generation farm. There’s no issue of supply, but we’re struggling to get food to the consumer,” an organic fruit farmer complained.

Livestock farmers are faring a little better because meat does not have to be harvested as aggressively as fruit and vegetables, but they also told the Age they might soon have problems with inventory backlogs – which might require the destruction of animals to clear. A pig farmer explained that he does not have enough workers to care for his animals, and since the pigs never stop feeding and growing, they might become too large to sell.

Everyone involved in the Australian grocery chain, including retailers, complained about the lack of rapid antigen tests (RAT) that will be needed to get food workers back on the job. The Australian government is talking about easing lockdown restrictions in the face of mounting public anger, but farmers and grocers agreed rapid testing would be needed for employees who handle food.

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said isolation requirements would be lifted for workers in “critical supply chains.” He specifically mentioned “those who are driving the truck to deliver the food, those who are stacking the shelves at night, those who are in the distribution centers” as examples.

“I mean, you can just shut everything down and lock everybody away, and there will be no food on the shelves, and there’ll be no children getting taught, and there’ll be no one providing health care. So that’s obviously not a practical way to move forward,” Morrison said.

Significant shortages of groceries have been reported in parts of Australia, including Sydney. 

“We are seeing impacts across the whole country, and it’s not yet clear how soon the system will come back into balance as we move through the Omicron wave,” said a note to customers last week from Woolworths, Australia’s largest supermarket operator.

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