The rain outside has been relentless for the last 20 hours and is likely to go on well into the night, now accompanied by the groaning of the wind as we are passed by the eye of the storm. This is the after-effect of Cyclone Debbie which has coursed through North Queensland this week. Here in Brisbane flood alerts are in place, schools are closed, and people warned against unnecessary travel. I live on a hill, in an apartment, and have stayed inside all day. I know nothing of what is really going on out there, and the consequences of this weather on people, homes and livelihoods.
Yesterday I went to the farmer’s market in the city and noted the absence of three stalls that sell fruit and/or veg. I put this down to the cyclone, which has caused farming communities significant crop damage and losses. Today is usually the day I go to the community garden. We only planted seedlings a few weeks ago. Will any of these survive? In the grand scheme of things, our beds of salad plants and herbs are no significant loss, but it’s still food that would (and hopefully still will) be used to help sustain our community.
Our food system begins in the field. The first step in the journey to produce food for consumers is growing food. The links in the ‘farm to fork’ chain may be few (e.g. vegetables that you have grown yourself) or many (e.g. a highly-processed meat-based ready meal) but if this first step fails then, as consumers, we could go hungry. But, as farmers, much more is at stake.
Food wasted at farm-level is usually referred to as food loss. It is food that was originally intended for human consumption but does not make it that far due to natural disasters, disease, inefficiencies in infrastructure and logistics, and/or lack of knowledge, skills and technology. This is in comparison to food waste where food is consciously disposed of. Food loss and waste can occur pre- and post-harvest.
In developing countries, 40% of food loss/waste occurs at post-harvest and processing levels, compared to developed countries where the same amount of food is lost and wasted at retail and consumer levels. These losses early in the supply chain are traced back to financial, technical and managerial limitations and equates to lost incomes for small farmers and higher prices which penalise poor consumers.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) 2015 found that in developing countries the agriculture (which includes crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry) sector absorbs 22% of the economic impact caused by natural disasters. They recommend the need for more mainstream disaster risk reduction and resilience building, as well as the improved and systematic collection of data to better aid risk reduction. In comparison to the economic impact, humanitarian aid is small. More investment – not just in terms of money, but also specific training on everything from demand forecasting to marketing their product, and improved infrastructure, particularly in terms of refrigeration and storage is needed.
But the impact of food loss is not just experienced in developing countries. Supermarkets in the UK recently experienced a courgette shortage due to unusually cold and wet weather in Spain. Spanish growers also suffered with loss of lettuces, and other crops, and were unable to plant any more due to the weather. Food waste campaign groups such as Feedback and Love Food Hate Waste were quick with the message: buy seasonal produce and provided a glut of recipes with what to do with the elusive cauliflower.
Disease is also a significant contributor to food loss that can have just as wide-reaching consequences as natural disasters. The impacts of the foot and mouth crisis, which caused industry losses of more than £8 billion, in the UK in 2001 are still being felt by the British farming community, not least in the horrific memory of it. Lessons were learnt and farmer’s now have identification and tracking systems for their animals, contingency plans and advanced disease control technology. However, legislation regarding the disposal of food waste – particularly for use as animal feed – was introduced following the foot and mouth outbreak and campaigns like ‘The Pig Idea’ are calling for this to be changed in order to reduce the amount of food waste sent to landfill or for energy recovery.
In Queensland it seems Cyclone Debbie has brought mixed fortunes. Large losses in sugar cane are expected, although the extent of the loss cannot be seen until the June harvest. Farmers on the coast are expected to have experienced heavy losses, with those on the Whitsunday coast – an area considered north Australia’s food bowl – fearing entire crops lost and that it could be months before they’re able to grow again. However, the heavy rain has been a blessing to many cattle producers and farmers in central Queensland following serious drought. Current predictions exceed $1 billion in damages, with fruit and vegetable farmers seeing between $100,000 and $2 million in individual losses. Natural disasters in Queensland are not uncommon and disaster resilience planning for agriculture is continuously being improved. Support and advice is on hand from the government, and other independent bodies, and volunteer agencies are also on hand to help with clean ups. How this event impacts consumers over the coming weeks and months remains to be seen.