One aspect of the COVID-19 crisis that has so far escaped widespread public attention in Australia is its potential impact on our food security.
We haven’t seen supermarket shortages of fruit and vegetables like toilet paper and pasta because, being perishable, they are not easily stockpiled and therefore less prone to demand-side spikes.
But being perishable also makes them more susceptible to supply-side shocks, such as we’re seeing with higher prices now for the likes of broccoli due to the impact of drought and bushfires.
The major variable in whether the coronavirus crisis will hurt fruit, vegetable and nut supplies (and prices) depends on how they are picked while the nation’s border remains closed to the foreign seasonal workers on which Australian farmers depend.
Rural Australia’s dependence on the muscles of tens of thousands of backpackers and workers on temporary working visas is sometime minimised by official statistics.
More than one-third of peak seasonal jobs on horticultural farms are filled by overseas workers, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.
But anyone in direct contact with the industry knows most direct harvest labour in Australia is done by foreigners.
Official statistics about agricultural workers are rubbery. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, for example, can only estimate the total number of workers at between 240,000 and 408,000.
The vagueness is due to three reason. First, the data is based on a single month (in this case August 2016) and picking work is seasonal, with less workers employed in winter. Second, workers move around, so double-counting can occur. Third, overseas workers and contract workers provided by labour hire companies are not included in labour force surveys.
What immigration data tells us, however, is that in 2017-18 about 31,000 backpackers did at least 88 days of farm work to be eligible to extend their visas for a year. (There are no numbers for the number of backpackers working on farms for other reasons.)
A further 8,500 workers from Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste worked on farms for up to six months on visas issued under Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme. This increased to about 12,000 in 2018-19.
The indefinite closure of Australia’s borders to non-resident foreign nationals jeopardises this supply of farm workers.
The question is whether the spike in domestic unemployment will see Australian workers (and other foreign workers) displaced from other sectors flocking to rural areas to take up those jobs.
Possible complications are travel restrictions, with states closing borders and city dwellers being told to stay away from Australia’s country towns, and the Australian government’s income assistance measures.
“In theory, Australians laid off in the many sectors now facing recession could head for the countryside and start picking fruit,” he argues in an article co-authored with Stephen Howes, an economics professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.
In practice, it is just not going to happen. The work is difficult, and farms often geographically isolated. It would take years not months to change the reality that farm work is just not in the choice set of most Australians – who, after all, live in one of the most urbanised and richest countries in the world.
Allowing backpackers and seasonal workers in Australia to extend their visas is an obvious first step. On top of any measures to encourage foreign workers to stay, the longer term may require making an exception to the ban on their entering the country.
The entry of seasonal workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste already requires medical checks before they travel. Exempting those with seasonal work visas from our closed border policy would not be unreasonable. Canada, which runs a similar guest worker program, has already done so.
With Australian help, workers could be tested for COVID-19 before they fly. On arrival here they would be quarantined for 14 days like everyone else.
The government would need to step in and pay for suitable accommodation, catering and medical services. It would also need to ensure arrangements so workers can get home. But there are there a number of benefits to justify the cost.
It contributes not only to Australia’s food security but also its national interest, maintaining and deepening its bonds with its island neighbours.
If there is a silver lining to the current grim situation, it may be that it could serve to make real the rhetoric that our relationship with the Pacific (and Timor-Leste) is one defined by partnership, in which we help ourselves through helping each other.
In an address on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed his dismay at the hordes of “panic buyers” sweeping supermarket shelves clean across the country:
Stop hoarding. I can’t be more blunt about it. Stop it. It is not sensible, it is not helpful and it has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis.
It started with toilet paper, and now many non-perishable foods are difficult to source, as shoppers stockpile in preparation for the worst.
But is there a rationale for such behaviour? And how can we move beyond our psychological impulses to shop smarter, and consider the needs of others?
The coronavirus outbreak is not only a time of uncertainty, but also a period in which many of us are experiencing social isolation. Both of these factors can psychologically motivate people to buy things they don’t need.
Feeling unable to tolerate uncertainty is associated with more extreme hoarding behaviour. Hoarding entails the collection of more items than can be feasibly used, to the point of impeding the functionality of a home. Even though the behaviours we’re seeing may not be “hoarding” in this sense, they’re likely driven by the same psychological mechanisms.
One of the strongest predictors of hoarding behaviour is an individual’s perceived inability to tolerate distress. If it’s in a person’s general nature to avoid distress, they may be at risk of buying more products than they can feasibly use during the pandemic.
For such people, it may be difficult to believe authorities when they announce supermarkets will not close. Or, if they do believe them, they may decide it’s best to “prep”, just in case things change.
The coronavirus also reminds many people of their own mortality, and this can lead to an increase in spending to offset fear.
Even if a person typically feels able to handle distress, they may still end up buying more than they need. Seeing empty shelves can trigger an urge to snatch what is left. Research on the “scarcity heuristic” suggests we assume items are more valuable if they are in low supply.
Also, consumer goods are more than functional. Products and brands also serve psychological purposes and can change how we feel. For example, some people turn to alcoholto alleviate anxiety or distress.
So how can we make rational decisions, when multiple psychological forces make this difficult?
While no perfect remedy exists, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques can help people avoid making decisions based on unhelpful urges and emotions. CBT has been shown to improve intolerance of uncertainty, and reduce anxiety and fear.
CBT involves problem-solving and engaging in avoided behaviour to test the validity of one’s beliefs. The idea is to challenge unhelpful thoughts, and make decisions based on evidence.
To apply this approach when shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, you should start by taking stock of the items you already have at home, and how long they will last.
When stocking up, it’s important to limit waste and be considerate. It’s not helpful to buy food that spoils, or buy so many products that others, including the elderly, experience hardship. Buying 100 rolls of toilet paper is useless if it takes a year to use them.
Food waste can be limited by developing meal plans for the next two to three weeks, keeping in mind when certain products expire. By focusing your attention on what you will realistically use during this time, you can make more informed decisions about what to buy.
When shopping, take a list with you to guide your purchases, and try your best to stick to it. This way, you’ll be less likely to succumb to anxiety-driven purchases triggered by the sight of empty shelves, or thoughts of supermarkets closing. That said, be willing to buy substitutes if certain items are sold out. You can plan for this in advance.
You may start to feel anxious when only buying items for use in the immediate future. That’s OK. Numerous research trials have shown people can tolerate anxiety, and that changing unhelpful behaviour reduces anxiety in the long run.
Research has also shown people who chronically hoard can tolerate distress better than they think. So, while anxiety may be inevitable for some on their next shopping trip, they will likely be able to tolerate it. And it may be reduced if the above strategies are adopted.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Australians had a problem of buying things they didn’t need. We’re the ninth-largest contributor of household waste per person in the world, spending more than A$10.5 billion each year on goods and services we rarely use. Over half of that expenditure is for food that gets wasted.
Perhaps understanding the psychological mechanisms underpinning our shopping behaviour can help us make more rational purchases during this time of uncertainty.
Jesse Beasley, University of Melbourne; Kate Howell, University of Melbourne; Nathan M D’Cunha, University of Canberra; Nenad Naumovski, University of Canberra, and Senaka Ranadheera, University of Melbourne
If you’re trying to reduce your trips to the shops as you practise social distancing and contribute to “flattening the curve” of the coronavirus spread, you might be wondering what it means for your vegetable crisper.
Fresh vegetables need replacing often and, thanks to panic buying, there’s no guarantee you’ll find your favourite fresh foods in your local supermarket.
The good news is there are some really nutritious alternatives to fresh vegetables, and the old adage that “fresh is best” isn’t always true.
Fresh vegetable prices have been increasing on average 2% per year over the past decade.
In Australia, vegetable prices are expected to increase 20-50% over the coming months due to drought and the recent bushfires.
Cauliflower, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, and root vegetables such as potatoes and pumpkins are expected to be hardest hit.
We should therefore all be thinking of ways to maximise the shelf life of our fresh veggies. In addition, it’s important not to forget the value of frozen, canned and fermented alternatives.
Australian dietary guidelines recommend daily consumption of different types and colours of vegetables. However, these guidelines don’t say in what form these veggies should be eaten.
Fresh vegetables are at their most nutritious (and often cheapest) when they are recently harvested and in season, which is not always the case on supermarket shelves.
Long transport times and poor storage conditions can also reduce the nutritional quality of fresh vegetables.
The upshot is that frozen and fermented vegetables can provide the same nutrition as fresh alternatives, especially as they’re often harvested in season and snap-frozen or fermented soon after picking.
Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember vegetables are not only nutritious – they can also reduce the risk of cancer and improve your gut microbiome.
The shelf life of fresh vegetables is generally short (3-14 days) even when refrigerated. Freezing, on the other hand, can preserve the nutritional quality of vegetables and increase their shelf life to up to 12 months.
In some cases, frozen vegetables have a higher nutritional quality than fresh vegetables, particularly if there is a short time between harvesting and freezing.
Nevertheless, some nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin C are vulnerable to the freezing process. One study found higher levels of vitamin C in fresh capsicum, carrot, parsley and spinach relative to frozen alternatives.
Variation in the freezing process, storage conditions and temperature can also change the quality of vegetables.
For example, ice crystals that form during freezing can damage the internal cell structure of potatoes and negatively affect their texture.
If you want to freeze vegetables yourself, select those that are fresh, undamaged and in season and blanch them quickly before freezing. This helps retain colour, flavour and nutritional quality.
Some vegetables such as tomato, capsicum and corn do not need to be blanched before freezing.
Canning and/or fermentation can extend the shelf life of vegetables to between one and five years.
Canned vegetables generally have a similar nutritional profile to fresh vegetables, particularly when it comes to minerals and fibre. However, certain steps in the process (such as peeling) may lead to some nutritional loss.
Just remember that once opened, canned vegetables should be stored in a separate container and consumed within three days.
During fermentation, microorganisms convert the carbohydrates in veggies into alcohol and/or acids that act as natural preservatives (extending shelf life) and can improve the digestibility of starch and protein.
Fermented vegetables are also full of antioxidants and adding extra ingredients like ginger, chilli and garlic can make them an even more nutritious choice.
To reap the full benefits, ferment veggies yourself or choose refrigerated fermented vegetables at the shops (unrefrigerated versions are pasteurised and can have lower probiotic benefits).
Vegetables are a great source of essential nutrients and Australians should aim to eat a wide variety of them each day.
By including fresh, frozen, canned and fermented vegetables in our diet, we not only give our bodies a boost, but help to take pressure off Australian growers to produce high quality and seasonal vegetables all year round.
The vast majority of Australians don’t eat enough vegetables, and these nutritious and tasty alternatives could be the key to improving our overall health – at a time when we need it most.
Jesse Beasley, PhD Student in BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Kate Howell, Senior Lecturer Food Chemistry, University of Melbourne; Nathan M D’Cunha, PhD Candidate, University of Canberra; Nenad Naumovski, Associate Professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Canberra, and Senaka Ranadheera, Lecturer, University of Melbourne
Panic buying, shop shelves emptied of toilet paper, hand sanitiser, pasta and other household supplies, supermarkets policing limits on buying products, Amazon and eBay stopping opportunists from selling items at exorbitant prices. When will things get back to normal?
The good news: well before the coronavirus crisis is over.
Usually a well-oiled supply chain guarantees no shortages or excesses in products. Products bought in the supermarket are quickly replenished, ensuring stock is always available.
Logistics for toilet paper, hand sanitiser and pasta are usually highly efficient. Companies are pleased to have lean, skinny supply chains. These products sell at low margins. For the profit they return, they can take up a lot of space in a store (as in the case of toilet paper). So distributors want to keep inventory at a minimum.
Happily, demand is usually highly predictable, so product moves slowly and continuously from factory to distribution centre to store and finally to you.
These, however, are not usual days.
The shelves for these products (and others) are empty as everyone goes into “hoard mode” simultaneously. If a product is sold out, all you can do is wait for more to arrive. And because these supply chains are slow and unresponsive, you might also buy as much as you can the next time.
It is easy to see how this dynamic becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: shelves are emptied simply because people predict they will be empty sooner rather than later.
The idea that one’s expectations drive actions that confirm the initial thought is as ancient as the Greek Oedipus in his tragic journey to become the king of Thebes and as modern as Lord Voldemort going after Lily and James Potter. Sociologist Robert Merton was among the first to bring the concept to economic behavour, noting in a 1948 paper:
The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.
That said, a slow and skinny supply chain doesn’t mean paralysed.
The information of a spike in demand made its way from shops and distributors to manufacturers a few weeks ago. Now manufacturers, suppliers and transporters – all profit-driven – are moving to answer the call.
Their challenge is finding a balance between being too conservative and underproducing (leaving shelves empty) or being too exuberant and overproducing (getting lumbered with the cost of unsold stock). Ramping down production and distribution will take as much time as it did to ramp up.
Manufacturers and distributors, however, now have weeks of information about the degree of extra demand being put on usually very predictable supply chains. With that information, the only things stopping supply returning to normal well before coronavirus contamination reaches a peak is a major disruption to production or transportation – and so far there’s no sign that will occur.
So which shelves will be replenished sooner? If you have a product at home, take a look at the package. Where is it made?
Local supply chains are much more responsive. Products made in your country, especially in your region, will hit the shelves sooner. If the product comes from overseas, response rates are significantly different and you have to allow 10 to 12 weeks to be safe.
Does that mean you can assume – with hand sanitisers, toilet paper and pasta made in generous quantities in every country – regular stock will return sooner rather than later?
Well, no. It depends. Things become more complicated depending on whether average demand increases.
It is hard to imagine people going to the loo all that more often because of the coronavirus, so the supply of toilet paper should be back to normal quickly.
Some quick research on lead times in the toilet paper industry shows most orders are fulfilled in about 10 days (three weeks at most). There have been reports in the past week that manufacturers have increased shipping by more than 20%. So you should expect things to get back to normal within about three weeks, depending on local circumstances.
With pasta, it is easy to imagine people cooking at home more rather than eating out, so there might well be an increase in consumption that adds to demand. This too, though, should be dealt with in a short time, possibly in a month or two.
For hand sanitisers, an estimate is really problematic. I’d be guessing.
Here are the complications. Greater demand for hand sanitiser should be expected for as long as the crisis continues – possibly longer. Manufacturers may reach capacity quickly. To produce more will take investment and time.
Expansion can be accelerated but still depends on new buildings, new equipment, new skilled employees and possibly new suppliers. This can’t be achieved in weeks or months. So if you haven’t seen stocks in weeks, don’t pin your hopes on things changing any time soon.
Fortunately hand sanitiser is what economists call a substitute good. It’s quite replaceable with some other form of soap. So too is pasta. You can always have noodles, or rice, or wraps, tacos and so on.
Even toilet paper has its substitutes. But all the indications are it shouldn’t come to that.
For every headline about panic buying, fighting and even arrests in supermarkets, we see other stories about communities and individuals rallying in support of each other. These interpersonal connections reveal our true humanity, especially in times of crisis.
The popular belief is that such times provoke “frenzied selfishness and brutal survival-of-the-fittest competition”. It’s the stuff of apocalyptic-genre movies, like Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic movie, Contagion, for which downloads have surged since January.
The classical view is that, faced with high stress or threats, a “fight or flight” response is hardwired into us. So people become aggressive in the supermarket, or avoid it altogether by going online.
However, recent research indicates that acute stress, lack of control, or feelings of vulnerability might actually lead to more cooperative and pro-social behaviour.
The notion of karma – to act in a way as you wish others to act – explains these behaviours. In 2012, University of Chicago researchers studied how people behaved when faced with outcomes beyond their personal control. The findings of their experiments supported the idea of “karmic investment” by showing that respondents who “desired an outcome over which they had little control”:
increased donations of time and money
made more generous pledges
became more optimistic after acting in a pro-social manner.
As the current crisis develops, we would expect to see more and more people sharing food and groceries, behaving more hospitably toward each other and becoming more aware of vulnerable others. Developing social connections in times of crisis may be necessary for our collective survival as a species.
Most people look to support one another in such times. From natural disasters, like bushfires, droughts and floods, to human-enacted events, such as mass shootings or food contamination, after the initial feelings of fear, anxiety and helplessness, people soon come together to help one another. An underlying sense of community and connection is the “social glue” that brings people together to work altruistically for the common good.
During the recent Australian bushfires, social media were flooded with images of notes pinned to doors inviting volunteer fire fighters to “help themselves to what ever is in the fridge”.
The “Buy from the Bush” campaign was launched to support small businesses in rural and regional areas struggling with the drought.
A year ago, after the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand women began wearing headscarves in solidarity with Muslims.
In response to panic buying of toilet paper, Nine journalist Jelisa Apps started a Facebook community site, Neighbourly Love, after an encounter with a distressed elderly shopper. Designed to bring community together, it’s a place to ask for help or provide help.
While we are often quick to criticise our big banks, airlines and retailers, in the past week many have stepped up to help vulnerable people. Companies like Commonwealth Bank, Woolworths and Telstra have said they plan to pay casual team members who are unable to come to work if they need to self-isolate or become ill with coronavirus.
The public is seeking comfort, security and predictability. Collective and altruistic movements by businesses, such as Woolworths’ partnership with Meals on Wheels to support older people and people with disabilities, help provide the community with a sense of agency and positive action.
These initiatives not only remind people of their own core values, but also appeal to the common values of their society. From a consumer psychology perspective, these programs are designed to connect society, appeal to the Australian sense of mateship and protect the greater good no matter our differences.
People are strongly influenced by group identity as a source of security in a crisis. Overarching values and goals bring people together.
We are being exposed to events that create anxiety, stress and even fear. Yet, in the process, we begin to empathise with those affected and imagine how we might cope in similar situations. Reaching out to people who are affected, either emotionally, physically or financially, can help us re-establish feelings of power and control.
As we see others behaving in the same “pro-social” way, we are reminded we live in a civilised society. This provides clarity and confidence and reduces our stress levels.
Engaging with others in a pro-social manner protects us from isolation and the idea that no one understands our pain. People do better physically, emotionally and psychologically when they connect with others in times of suffering. In 2012, researchers found that “connecting” in this way provides a sense of protection and safety.
Humans are social beings, designed to live cooperatively. Helping one another in a crisis is both a practical way to collect and share resources, and important for our own well-being.
Altruism itself is “contagious”. When businesses, public figures and the general public begin to engage in goodwill, this powerfully bonds communities together.
The social capital generated though formal and informal networks can be used to raise awareness about causes and vulnerable members of society, and to mobilise community action. Collective action then reinforces a sense of common purpose and safety in numbers.
In the case of COVID-19, a well-connected and informed community can respond more effectively. This will enable us not only to survive the crisis as individuals, but also to support community recovery in the longer term.