It is often said that tragedies beyond our control often bring out the best in people. The response from Australians to help farmers and local communities struggling to cope with the drought conditions through donations and other support is greatly appreciated and reinforces that we are a caring and compassionate nation.
The recent media coverage has no doubt increased the awareness for many people living in our cities of some of the vagaries of life on the land and helped remind them how important farming is to the foundations of our society. This has led to a greater desire to buy local produce and if need be, pay a bit more for it. But when it rains again will the ‘average’ Australian consumer simply return to a cheapest option approach, or can this drought be the catalyst to change people’s perception of locally grown food and fibre and the value they place on it?
Australians spend just 9.8% of their household income on food each year, one of only eight countries in the world to spend less than 10%. By contrast, developing countries spend a much greater proportion on food. Ten spend over 40% on food, with Nigeria at the top of the list at 56.4%. While these numbers reflect a common trend across western societies and general living standards, other factors also contribute to it.
Firstly, farmers in this country are among the world’s best at growing quality food and fibre for our nation and many more, feeding about 60 million people every year. Australia ranks fifth on the Global Food Security Index, with the agricultural sector continually providing affordable, accessible and safe food. By producing three times more food than we need, Australian consumers have become spoilt for choice and food security is something most wouldn’t contemplate.
The constant price war between our major supermarkets is another contributing factor. While this is a fundamental tenant of capitalism; in the consumers’ mind it devalues food, what it takes to produce it, and what a fair farm gate return is. “Down-down” and “cheap-cheap” seem to have become major influencers on shopping habits.
For example, Coles and Woolworths began the first price war battle by reducing the price of their own-brand milk to $1 per litre. Following a call to support local producers and buy branded milk in 2016, consumers bought branded milk in significant numbers, with Woolworths-branded milk dropping from 66% of sales to 51% in a single month. However, just a year later its market share had risen back up to 60% and dairy farmers continue to struggle to get a fair price for their product. Chicken meat is another staple that has become a ‘sacrificial product’; however, I doubt many consumers would consider the impact a $9 cooked chook has on the chicken meat industry and most would now (understandably) consider that it is a fair price – it’s not.
Researchers of consumer behaviour tell us that it has become clear there is a barrier between ethical intent and ethical behaviour, so while most consumers say they’ll buy Australian-made products they vote with their wallets and don’t follow through. Encouragingly, in response to this current drought, people are bucking this trend. If this can be sustained, they will continue to play an active role in helping to build more resilient farming businesses and rural communities.