Drought spurs Australia to import rice or risk empty shelves

Australian rice planting and output have slumped more than 90 per cent since the 2017-18 season.
Australian rice planting and output have slumped more than 90 per cent since the 2017-18 season.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (BLOOMBERG) - This season, like nearly nine-tenth of Australian rice growers, Mr Rob Massina decided to skip planting the grain on his land near the tiny town of Jerilderie, about four hours north of Melbourne.

For the president of the Australian Ricegrowers' Association, low water allocations and years of severe drought meant conditions were too dry to sow the crop on his property at the southern end of the Murray-Darling Basin.

"A lot of the towns in this part of the world have been built on rice," said Mr Massina. "It's a way of life for the southern Riverina and it's currently got its challenges," he said, referring to the name of the local region.

Australian rice planting and output have slumped more than 90 per cent since the 2017-18 season.

Its national 2019-20 crop is expected to be 57,000 tonnes, the second-smallest output on record and the lowest since the 2007-08, according to a June report from government forecaster Abares.

Though Australia has always been reliant on imports for certain varieties that can't be grown locally, like Basmati, its supermarkets may be entirely without local supplies by the end of 2020, according to Mr Rob Gordon, chief executive of SunRice, which buys about 98 per cent of domestic output and supplies local and export markets.

The company has a global appetite for about 1.4 million tonnes a year, meaning Australian production is meeting only a sliver of that demand.

"We're already supplementing from Thailand and Cambodia," Mr Gordon said, for fragrant and long grain rice.

"As we start running out of domestic supply of our other varieties, we'll start opening up supply chains from elsewhere around the world. We're bringing in rice from Uruguay at the moment," he said by phone.

Rice represents only a tiny fragment of Australia's agriculture industry, and the country is a small player in global trade.

However, shrinking supplies of locally grown rice were thrown into focus earlier this year when Covid-19 panic buying saw shoppers strip grocery shelves of everything from rice to flour and pasta.

 
 
 

The government has reassured residents that their food supply is secure - the country of 25 million produces enough food for 75 million and imports only 11 per cent of food and drink by value - but rice remains a gap in domestic production.

That could create issues amid global food protectionism as governments start trimming exports in order to shore up domestic supply, Mr Gordon said.

"I believe strongly in international trade but of course during Covid, we saw in April the Vietnamese borders closed to rice exports and they are about the third-largest exporter of rice in the world. We saw India not shut its borders, but with a lockdown of its population they were unable to export large volumes of rice, and they are the biggest exporter. And we saw Cambodia and Myanmar follow Vietnam's lead," Mr Gordon said.

"It just puts more risk there."

WATER POLICIES

Mr Gordon and Mr Massina cite government water allocation policies in the Murray-Darling Basin as a key issue for the future security of production, with rice often less profitable than other crops and therefore less likely to be planted.

When water does become available, the first priority on his mixed-enterprise farm has to be the livestock, said Mr Massina. For other producers, almonds and other horticultural products have taken priority over rice.

"What the water-policy setting seems to be doing is favouring water going to only the very highest return, which is almonds at the moment," said Mr Gordon.

Government forecaster Abares said in June water allocations vary from year to year based on seasonal conditions and farmers can choose how to use them.

In May, Abares described Australian rice production as "highly variable and opportunistic", based on agricultural prices and water availability, and said international trade is a good way to meet consumer preferences.

Current low production is not a cause for food security concern, as the world has ample supplies and any protectionism is likely to be short-lived, it added.

"Introducing domestic market interventions and failing to support open trade would disadvantage consumers, and could prejudice Australia's market access negotiations for other agricultural products," Abares said.

With early rainfall, prospects are better for the next growing season.

Mr Massina will later this year look at water availability and decide whether to plant a rice crop.

Overall, he said the future of the Australian rice industry will depend "on whether Australian consumers want Australian rice on supermarket shelves".

"We're getting down to the bottom of the cupboard in terms of Australian rice supplies," he said.