The 2019-2020 fires have struck Australia in apocalyptic waves. They have ravaged the land, killed millions of animals, and displaced thousands of people, causing a health threat of epic proportions. Smoke has clouded the sky in Sydney and Melbourne and traveled as far as New Zealand. With fires burning since September and two more months of summer ahead, the crisis is likely to intensify.
We cannot yet measure the full extent of the damages with more than 20 million acres burned so far. However, we can begin to analyze the impact the fires have had on the food system.
With temperatures reaching record highs above 40C, and as high as 48C in cities in New South Wales, food production is at risk.
Farmers have fled as fires claim farmlands around the country, dreading the worst for their animals. Livestock losses will surpass 100,000, according to reports from the Federal Agriculture Minister, affecting the meat and dairy industries. Dairy farmers fear there will be a milk shortage after assessing their losses both in terms of numbers of dairy cows and the availability of grazing land, much of which has now turned to charcoal. The lack of fodder to feed the remaining animals will also have an impact on their future production.
Small farmers are in distress. After destroying their crops, the flames burned through infrastructure and farm tools. Even in areas the fires have spared farmland, the heat and intense drought pose a threat to food production.
“Eggplants and tomatoes burst with the heat,” said Amorelle Dempster, Australia and Oceania Councilor for Slow Food, recounting a conversation with a local farmer.
Australia is one of the largest food exporters in the world. It produces 16% of the beef and 11% of wheat traded internationally, as well as other products like dairy, nuts, cereals, seafood, fruits and vegetables.
The fire crisis will most likely affect the price of goods, and the recovery will be long and expensive. Food security for local communities needs to be a priority. Thousands of climate migrants must find a new place to call home, and indigenous communities who for thousands of years have relied on the bush for their traditional nourishment continue to lose food sovereignty.
Australia’s unique biodiversity is also going up in flames.
Hundreds of millions of wild animals have died, and while media attention has focused on the koala, much of the loss involves birds, insects, and other smaller animals that are vital to healthy ecosystems and our own food system. Marine life is at risk with the excess carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere contributing to ocean acidification. And rising water temperatures are affecting marine ecosystems in the Tasman Sea.
Around the World
Unpredictable destructive fires like those raging in Australia are becoming the new normal around the world.
In 2019, fires burned in California, the UK, Indonesia, Siberia, and the Amazon; entering what Stephen Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, calls “a planetary fire age.” We believe this is the “take action age”. It is our time to act, to raise awareness on the impact the climate crisis is having on the intensity and length of natural disasters, and how our actions can help shape a better future.
We must support efforts to adopt regenerative agriculture practices. Following the Slow Food mission to support local economies composed of small farmers and food producers providing and promoting a good, clean and fair food system.
“This is a wake up call to the world to create change. This is a long-term problem, and the question is, how can we make it better?” said Amorelle.
We will continue to report the impact the climate crisis is having on the small farmers and indigenous communities of Australia, and the efforts of the Slow Food Australia network to support them.