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  • By: "Prime" Ag News
  • Mar 26, 2020

By Robbie Sefton - Chairperson at Panel for the Independent Assessment of Social And Economic Conditions in The Basin

It is now certain that the global economy will be completely changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The nature of those changes are wholly uncertain, except that there is likely to be extensive short-term damage to agricultural markets. Fortunately, food and fibre production are the most essential of essential services, and so agriculture will endure over the long term. But in what form?

Hopefully, all the coronavirus carnage will produce some useful lessons. Like: how robust are our systems, really? Access to something as simple as toilet paper, once reliably on the shelves when we needed it, can no longer be taken for granted. A scarcity of toilet paper isn’t social breakdown, but it indicates how quickly society can break when the human herd is panicked.

After the Great Toilet Paper Rush, the panicking public turned its attention to other commodities and there was a run on meat. Butchers cleaned out of meat face two dilemmas: can they get ongoing supplies to keep customers coming back? And if they do manage to get supplies, will customers suddenly stop coming because they’ve just stocked up their freezers, leaving the butchers with a pile of expensive, perishable product?

In all sorts of such ways, systems are being tested. If we can do nothing else, we can analyse these stress-tests to establish what works through good and bad economic weather, and what is essential to our operations. So much business investment goes into productivity solutions, which can be a good bet when conditions are good – but what happens when there is no scope for productivity? A year of flood, drought, bushfire and now coronavirus has taught farmers and their supply chains that sometimes, sheer survival counts too. We need to be able to keep going in troubled times, even in some reduced form, so that we can return to productivity as the times allow.

We are early in the history of this pandemic. We know that some businesses will fall, and others will prosper. I think, I hope, that this time of reckoning will re-educate Australians about what is essential in their lives – like food. Perhaps this is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to overthrow the delusion held in urban centres, that our cities are the foundations of our society. The coming months may show that the foundation of human society sits where it always has: in the soil. And with those who produce crops and livestock from the soil, and those who get those foodstuffs onto our tables.

When a big old tree falls in a forest, light streams in through the freshly-opened canopy and lots of new life gets a chance to flourish in the place once occupied by the old tree. That’s what this pandemic offers beyond all the economic destruction: new light on old challenges, and a chance for new things to grow.

Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains, and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.