RMIT experts weigh in on Australian food supply shortages

As Australia continues to battle the issue of food supply shortages being experienced in the face of the Omicron outbreak, academics from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have given some extra insight into the cause of the crisis and possible solutions.

“The food supply chain has been particularly susceptible to the pandemic, and especially the Omicron variant. As it spreads across Australia like a wildfire, an already strained system has been pushed to a breaking point,” said professor of human resource management, deputy dean research & innovation, school of management, RMIT, Andrew R. Timming.

Timming said migrant labour played an important role in Australia’s food supply chain and the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the restrictions therein, had taken a toll on the migrant work force.

“Migrants have traditionally played a huge role, from picking produce to transporting it across the country. With the abrupt closure of our borders in 2020, that supply has been cut off,” he said.

“This, coupled with the strict rules surrounding isolation and quarantine, has created the perfect storm we are experiencing today. There are plenty of low wage jobs to go around and not nearly enough people willing or able to fill them.”

Timming said the capability to automate more tasks across the food and beverage supply chain was one possible solution, and one that could mitigate the risk of another shortage in the future.

“Already we have the technology to deploy self-driving trucks that can transport goods across the country with zero COVID-19 risk,” he said.

“More importantly, the lesson in the current supply chain crisis is that we should be looking towards more sustainable, locally sourced food. I grow my own vegetables in my backyard, so I am largely unaffected by the empty shelves at the supermarket.”

Associate professor in sustainability and urban planning in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies (GUSS) and the Centre for Urban Research (CUR) at RMIT, Andrew Butt, echoed Timming’s comments.

“One of the major challenges of our food supply chain, even before the pandemic, is finding a labour force for picking and packing and the like in more remote areas,” said Butt.

“Already we were facing the challenge of having to bring in workers from the Pacific Islands and backpackers and so forth because access to labour in these remote areas is more challenging. These challenges have been exacerbated by COVID.”

“This is why good metropolitan planning and peri-urban planning needs to recognise the importance of having local food systems within metropolitan regions. By not recognising that a city like Melbourne can use peri-urban land for food production and presuming it can be done elsewhere, we’re creating a more fragile food system.”

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