COVID-19 revealed flaws in Australia’s food supply. It also gives us a chance to fix them


Penny Farrell, University of Sydney; Anne Marie Thow, University of Sydney; Helen Trevena, University of Sydney; Sinead Boylan, University of Sydney, and Tara Boelsen-Robinson, Deakin UniversitySince COVID hit, many Australians have seen first-hand what shocks to the food system can do.

Uncertainty around panic-buying, food supply and pricing have thrown our national food system into the spotlight. And it was already under extreme pressure from climate change and prolonged drought.

The pandemic has revealed vulnerabilities in the Australian food system, but it also presents an opportunity to make it more resilient.




Read more:
Victoria’s COVID lockdown reminds us how many rely on food charity. Here’s how we plan for the next inevitable crisis


Global ructions, local effects

Australia produces enough fresh food to feed the nation. In fact, more than 90% of the fresh food sold in supermarkets is produced here.

However, the pandemic and its effects on global economies has made it hard, at times, to maintain the supply of food we are used to due to workforce and logistics issues.

In particular, agricultural workforce shortages resulting from international border closures continue to threaten supply of fruit and vegetables, and may also affect price stability.

Food insecurity

Before the pandemic, more than 20% of Australians were estimated to be experiencing food insecurity. Since COVID, food insecurity has increased in Australia.

In Victoria, household budget pressures during the first lockdown forced one in four families to live without healthy food.

Food insecurity can worsen diet quality and increase the risk of various health conditions, including excess weight, obesity and diabetes. These conditions also put people at increased risk of getting very sick or dying from COVID-19.

Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of poor health and death worldwide, so the rising number of people without sufficient access to healthy diets should ring alarm bells for anyone interested in the health of Australians.




Read more:
No, it’s not just a lack of control that makes Australians overweight. Here’s what’s driving our unhealthy food habits


But along with these newly exposed vulnerabilities, there are many examples of agility and resilience across the Australian food system.

The agriculture sector has successfully shifted many businesses online. Charities in Victoria moved quickly to provide culturally appropriate food to communities in lockdown.

And the federal government has provided significant support to older people isolating at home, including roughly A$50 million for the “Meals on Wheels” program. There’s also been extra targeted support to farmers.

An opportunity for a coordinated approach

The COVID pandemic has forced many of us to appreciate the complexity and scale of the food production and distribution system in Australia.

Yet Australia currently lacks a national food policy, leaving us vulnerable to future shocks and limiting our capacity to protect vulnerable groups.

Integrated policy with buy-in of government sectors and portfolios beyond health (such as business, trade, agriculture, economics, and education), can maximise the economic, social, nutritional and environmental outcomes of our food system.

We need to encourage innovation and coordination between national, state, and local government levels to support food supply systems that deliver healthy food across the population.

We have already seen it’s possible to make significant policy changes to strengthen food systems in time of crisis. For example, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission temporarily relaxed anti-collusion rules for big supermarkets during the pandemic, so they could coordinate to “ensure essential supplies get through to vulnerable and isolated people”, as one media report put it.

A more resilient food system

In Australia, an integrated policy could help make our food system more resilient in the face of future shocks.

Perhaps the pandemic provides an opportunity for us to stop and take stock of what worked well, what didn’t, and where the biggest impact could be made.

For example, we could consider introducing food distribution warehouses in remote Australia so these communities can get healthy, minimally processed foods at affordable prices, even in times of crisis.

Lawmakers should place food security and access to nutritious food at the heart of agriculture, fisheries and trade policies.

We need to ensure nutrition is prioritised in any pandemic response efforts. One approach, advocated by researchers in a recent Nature comment piece, argued:

Cash provision could be coupled with incentives for recipients to participate in well-targeted, culturally sensitive food literacy programmes based on an understanding of barriers to consumption of nutritious foods.

In addition, public distribution programmes, state-managed stores, public restaurants, and other forms of subsidy programmes could focus on providing diverse nutritious foods and meals and minimizing less-healthy foods.

We note that the NSW government’s “Dine and Discover” program has been critiqued for including the fast food giants.

We must incentivise healthy food policies for businesses. For example, “naming and shaming” companies’ commitments to nutrition has resulted in policy and practice changes in Australia. There is recent evidence from that healthy merchandising in food stores can meet both commercial and public health goals in Australia.

The pandemic has highlighted how easily our food supply can be disrupted by crisis. Now, it’s up to us to lean into that disruption and find ways to build resilience into the food system.




Read more:
The coronavirus pandemic requires us to understand food’s murky supply chains


This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Penny Farrell, Research Fellow and Lecturer, University of Sydney; Anne Marie Thow, Associate Professor in Public Policy and Health, University of Sydney; Helen Trevena, Adjunct lecturer, University of Sydney; Sinead Boylan, Research Associate, University of Sydney, and Tara Boelsen-Robinson, Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus lays bare 5 big housing system flaws to be fixed



Shutterstock

Hal Pawson, UNSW and Peter Mares, Monash University

Australians had become used to walking past rough sleepers. Policymakers too, seemed unmoved by the people huddled in doorways or sheltering in parks under plastic sheets. That’s until the COVID-19 pandemic rendered rough sleepers visible, because we’ve all been told to stay home and anyone without a home presents a risk of passing on the virus.

State governments have suddenly found tens of millions of dollars to create pop-up accommodation or book rough sleepers into hotel rooms. But such short-term fixes also highlight the entrenched failings of Australia’s housing system. This crisis has laid bare five major vulnerabilities.

1. Thousands are sleeping rough

Before the pandemic, street homelessness affected about 8,000 people on any given night, as indicated by census data. But this is almost certainly an underestimate.

Recent UK research showed the number of people sleeping rough in any given year was five times as many as captured in census-type snapshots. There’s no reason to think it’s much different in Australia.

Many more people are on the fringe of rough sleeping — couch surfing, for example.

2. More than a million in rental stress

Our second housing system vulnerability is the body of people – far larger again – living in insecure and unaffordable rental housing. Even before this current crisis, housing costs had pushed around 1.3 million Australians into poverty. After paying rent they didn’t have enough money left for essentials like food and electricity.

Now many of these renters will have lost jobs or work hours. Government schemes like JobKeeper and JobSeeker will temporarily help only some — temporary migrants and many casual workers are excluded.

Measures like the moratorium on evictions are welcome (provided they prove robust). The same goes for mortgage pauses by the banks, which might help property owners avoid having to sell if tenants can’t afford the rent.

But these are only stopgap efforts.

3. A shrunken social housing sector

The third vulnerability is the shrivelled state of social housing, where rents are fixed at an affordable share of income. Relative to population, the number of properties let by public housing agencies and community housing providers has halved since 1991.

Across most of Australia, waiting lists for social housing are huge. In most jurisdictions the sector lacks the capacity to offer long-term housing to all the rough sleepers and others currently in hotels. Only through emergency unit acquisitions or head-leasing will this be possible.

4. A mountain of debt

Our fourth housing system vulnerability is housing-related debt. If the pandemic-induced downturn persists and unemployment stays high, this mountain of debt could make the recession much worse.

In the early 1990s household debt equated to about 70% of disposable household income. In March 2019, the RBA warned the debt-to-income ratio had risen to 190%. The increase was mostly due to increased borrowing to buy homes and investment properties.

Even before the pandemic, one in five mortgage holders were struggling to meet repayments. If large scale unemployment were to force mass property sales, this could compound the crash as homes flood the market.

We know from the GFC experience in the USA, Ireland, Spain and elsewhere that a sharp fall in property prices can have severe and long-lasting economic consequences that worsen inequality. In the USA, vulture landlords stepped in to buy up large numbers of distressed properties and create rental property empires. Renting from owners of this kind is not an attractive prospect.

Falling prices as the market was flooded by properties whose owners had defaulted on loans deepened the GFC impacts on the US.
Shutterstock

5. An unbalanced housing system

Our housing system is vulnerable to shocks because it is unbalanced, our fifth system frailty. Residential construction depends almost entirely on private developers building for sale to individual buyers.

These buyers are highly sensitive to the outlook for property values. The resulting herd mentality magnifies booms and slumps – a particular problem when they are totally dominant in the market. A magnified downturn can bring residential construction to a grinding halt. And while quick to shed labour, construction is slow to re-employ because of risk and long project lead times.

Construction normally employs more than 1 million Australians with a range of skill levels. It generates many more jobs through the building materials supply chain as well as in real estate, property management and financial services. This helps to explain why Master Builders Australia and the building union CFMEU have united in a call to government to invest in building 30,000 social housing units as part of Australia’s post-COVID recovery.

The need for a national strategy

The housing system needs more than a one-off crisis boost. The pandemic policy jolt is an opportunity to put Australia’s housing on more stable footings through a Commonwealth-led bipartisan, long-term, national housing strategy.

A key part of this should be routine social housing construction on a scale that at least keeps pace with population growth. That’s up to 15,000 homes a year – around five times the current number. This may sound ambitious, but it’s below the levels regularly achieved between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s.

And this doesn’t have to mean a return to the post-war approach when state authorities provided public housing. Not-for-profit community housing organisations can now take on the major new supply role.

But we do need a post-war level of ambition. Government has two immediate roles to play in linking housing to a post-pandemic recovery.

The first is to help avoid a house price crash that will deepen an economic slump. Co-ordinating action with mortgage lenders could help minimise repossessions and avoid a glut of discounted properties on the market.

Governments may also need to take on distressed projects from private developers. The New South Wales government has already flagged such action.

The second immediate role for government is to support residential construction as the motor of economic revival by investing in social housing as the central plank of a stimulus package. Government-owned sites and developer-owned landbanks can be used to kick-start activity more quickly than other major infrastructure projects. Community housing providers – especially some larger faith-based players – also have shovel-ready sites.

These should be the first steps in the national strategy, which should aim to diversify both housing supply and demand.

Alongside a greater role for community housing, this could include a build-to-rent sector commissioned by institutional investors to build market rental blocks as long-term, income-generating assets. This would benefit tenants and the economy, by smoothing the boom-bust cycle of residential construction.

As we argue in our recent books, a national housing strategy must also thoroughly overhaul national, state and territory tax settings. Many of these have greater housing policy impacts than any spending program.

Tax reform could make our housing system fairer and more efficient. It could dampen the speculation that fuels rising prices and debt, while raising the revenue we need to provide decent, affordable housing for all Australians.


Peter Mares hosts a new series, Housing the Australian Nation, on Earshot on ABC Radio National from May 30, which features an interview with Hal Pawson.The Conversation

Hal Pawson, Professor of Housing Research and Policy, and Associate Director, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW and Peter Mares, Lead Moderator, Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.