Many of our favourite groceries could be swallowed up by scorching heat and pounding rain.
Wandering down the supermarket aisle, it’s hard to see the thin green line to the paddock, but it’s there.
It snaps into focus when a cyclone wipes out banana crops, but mostly a bad season is something that only affects farmers. Or so I thought.
Shifting rainfall patterns and growing seasons as well as hotter weather are making it harder for farmers like me to grow food reliably.
This is obvious to a dairy farmer: just a few hours of heat can reduce the amount of milk our cows make by up to 25 per cent despite everything we do to keep them comfortable. In Australia, the number of record hot days has doubled in the past 50 years.
Even so, I was shocked by the Climate Council’s report, Feeding a hungry nation: Climate change, Food and Farming in Australia. So many of the staples (and some of the luxuries) I take for granted when shopping for my own family are under real pressure.
For example, declining rainfall patterns threaten wheat growers in southern Australia. Increasingly more intense tropical cyclones are battering banana crops in Queensland.
Hotter temperatures are also forcing cattle breeders to grow lower-quality, heat-resistant meat and making iconic wine-growing regions like the Barossa Valley in South Australia untenable.
Farmers are adapting fast. Here on my dairy farm, we’ve sown different pasture species, planted kilometres of shelterbelts, massively upgraded the water system, developed a heatwave response plan and installed shade sails in the dairy yard. Even the time of year the calves are born has shifted to match the moving seasons.
None of this adaptation is cheap and, if it keeps getting tougher to feed cows and make milk, we won’t be able to keep absorbing the costs. When dairy cows finally move from green pastures to feedlot sheds, milk will no longer be cheaper than water.
Of course, adaptation can only go so far and extreme weather capable of wiping out entire harvests is becoming more common.
When we go to the supermarket and find our favourite grocery items on the shelf it’s easy to forget that Australia is vulnerable. According to the Feeding a hungry nation report, there is only enough perishable food in our supply chain at any one time to last five days.
Even supplies of non-perishables, like tinned food, would only last 30 days. With such a small buffer any natural disaster hits hard.
On top of that, there’s also competition from customers around the globe. Australian parents are having to ration infant formula after a rush on a particular premium brand due to demand in China.
The industry is struggling to increase supply but the shortage has already lingered for months. The world is hungry for the beautiful food we grow in Australia.
As climate change makes farming more costly, harvests less reliable and our food more enviable, we will all need to compete for it at the checkout.
Marian MacDonald is a dairy farmer in Gippsland, Victoria, a mother and an online writer.