Let’s not forget that rice is still in crisis

By Zoe McMaugh

Better than expected financial results for SunRice should be celebrated, but should not overshadow the crisis still being faced by the rice industry.

That is the message from Ricegrowers Association of Australia president Rob Massina, who said Australia is still expected to run out of domestically grown rice by the end of December.

Two years of low to no general security irrigation water in the ricegrowing regions has resulted in less than 100,000 tonne of rice being delivered in the 2019 and 2020 crop years combined.

In a good water year, the Riverina region has been known to produce almost one million tonnes of rice.

Paired with the global COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily closed rice import and export borders, SunRice chairman Laurie Arthur announced in late March that domestic supplies would be exhausted by Christmas.

He said the combined factors highlighted that the Australian rice industry was no longer self sufficient.

Mr Massina said while the pressure on rice and other staples has started to ease, he said the prediction still stands.

‘‘Rice demand spiked during the pandemic and is starting to soften a little now, but who knows what will happen given what we’re starting to see in Victoria again,’’ he said.

‘‘There will still be a point where we will see limited Australian rice on the shelves.

‘‘Some countries have reopened their borders for rice, but it is in smaller quantities.

‘‘Ultimately — for our towns, our communities and our economies — water availability is still front of mind.

‘‘Rice supply has been pressure tested by two years of low allocations and this pandemic and we now need water security.’’

Mr Arthur said it is a concern that the crisis will be forgotten because of the easing of pandemic restrictions and slight improvements in water inflows.

‘‘With the stronger inflows in April and May people, and politicians, may be thinking this will work itself out, but there are long term structure problems when it comes to water,’’ Mr Arthur said.

‘‘The policy settings we have now have had a major impact on general security water, and we need government to do work on quantifying that impact.

‘‘We need them to first concede there is a problem, and then say ‘how can we fix it?’.

‘‘SunRice has worked very hard to make sure we are a business that can endure, but our sweet spot is when we have Riverina grown rice.

‘‘Rob (SunRice CEO Rob Gordon) has told me he needs 850,000 tonnes of rice from the next season.

‘‘We will be having more meetings with politicians and government advisors on this next week.’’