Adam Liaw on why the Australian food industry has been our saviour in 2020

Adam Liaw
It was the year of bolognese. So much bolognese.
It was the year of bolognese. So much bolognese. Photo: William Meppem

Earlier this year you couldn't find pasta or flour on supermarket shelves for love or money. If you'd told me then that by the end of the year those same supermarkets would be limiting people to four lobsters per person, I'd have thought you mad.

But here we are, and perhaps we are mad after all.

As Cervantes said in Don Quixote: "When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?"

2020 has been a year where food has taken centre stage. It didn't start well.

In January smoke from the Black Summer bushfires still hung in the air as farmers and food producers, reeling from years of drought, were trying to get their heads around the fires that devastated so much of the country. Wineries sent entire vintages down the drain as their grapes were damaged by smoke taint. Others, such as those in the Adelaide Hills, had decades-old vines razed.

We crave an end to the madness, but what if we've been through it all and learned nothing?

As we rallied with multimillion-dollar concerts and social initiatives to help people whose livelihoods relied on tourism, hospitality and agriculture, stories of a virus from a Wuhan wet market started to emerge.

Within weeks, we were panic buying, stripping shelves of everything from flour and passata to spaghetti and tinned tuna (and yes, toilet paper, too). Everyone from farmers and supermarket representatives all the way up to the Prime Minister tried to reassure us that we weren't going to run out of things to eat.

And we didn't.

Advertisement

We stocked our pantries and locked ourselves indoors and tended sourdough starters while dreaming of country cottages. We baked biscuits with our kids. We made bolognese. So much bolognese.

Of course, our food systems aren't set up for everyone in the country to buy 15 packets of pasta and 10 kilograms of flour all on the same day, but almost as quickly as it left, normality returned to the shelves.

We're an agricultural nation. A net producer and net exporter of food. We've talked about this a bit over the years through drought and fire, but it took a pandemic for it to really hit home. Most of us didn't go hungry. Our farmers kept us fed and we should thank them for it.

They did it tough, though. As our borders closed, the legions of backpackers and working holiday visa holders who with their hands and labour pull the fruit from our trees, grapes from our vines and vegetables from the ground were nowhere to be found. Regional Australia struggled with a mountain of work to be done but nobody to do it.

Small suppliers were among the worst hit. Many supply direct to hospitality, an industry affected more than any other by the obstructions of the pandemic. With restaurants closed, those suppliers had nowhere to sell, but for the hospitality industry, 2020 was a wrecking ball. An existential crisis.

While we craved a pint and a parmie, the pandemic shuttered restaurants, pubs and bars. And while we Zoomed instead of commuted, it turned the business districts that attract hospitality venues into ghost towns.

JobKeeper was made an employer's responsibility, a prudent governmental move that meant much-needed stimulus and relief happened quickly instead of stagnating in overwhelmed government administration as it has in other countries, but it also put more pressure on restaurateurs, who found themselves fighting for their livelihoods, and also trying to keep their staff afloat.

For some it was worse than others. Visa holders make up a significant proportion of hospitality workers, and without being eligible for JobKeeper and with little work available, many found themselves struggling to get by.

Many turned to delivering food to the housebound, a thankless, back-breaking and dangerous task that has claimed nearly half a dozen lives in just a few months. All for a return of little more than $10 an hour.

The challenges faced by hospitality weren't all bad. They also drove camaraderie, creativity and innovation. Chefs of hatted restaurants delivered lasagne, made jam and built whole new business models from scratch. In weeks. From nothing.

It's not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog. And now we know that Australian hospitality has plenty of fight in it.

If that was all 2020 had in store for us it might have been OK, but the low rattle of sabres has been a background noise for years. The casualties of diplomatic skirmishes that bounced between the US and China to Australia weren't soldiers and steel, they were barley farmers whose billion-dollar industry crashed head-first into a brick wall of tariffs.

Next were the winemakers who had invested millions into trying to gain a foothold in the promised land of a billion thirsty Chinese consumers, only to see their efforts dashed at the stroke of a pen. The messy and very public quarrel between Australia and China continues to be met with silence from a distracted and seemingly uninterested United States government.

James Marinopoulos, Red Coral Seafoods, the Victorian Seafood Industry encouraging people to eat local lobster and seafood for Mother's Day. 30th Apirl 2020 The Age News Picture by JOE ARMAO

Local lobster prices have fallen. Photo: Joe Armao

Yet as the year draws to a close there's plenty to be thankful for. The pandemic isn't over by a long shot, but we're doing our best to handle it well and we are in a better position than many other countries.

Australia's relationship with our largest export partner accounts for nearly a third of our total export economy, and the fact that those Christmas tables may have half-price lobsters on them is nice if you don't think too much about what it means for our industry.

There's an air of the First World War's Christmas Truce about it, but we're perhaps due a soccer match in no-man's land after the year we've been through.

We can only hope that 2021 holds better fortunes for our food industry. The tunnel has been long and dark, and we're due a little of the light we can now see at the end of it.

We crave an end to the madness, but what if we've been through it all and learned nothing from it? Nothing about how we value our food and food systems. Nothing about how food drives us culturally, philosophically and economically. Nothing about how important food is to every single one of us.

Sure, we may want a return to sanity, but I again refer to the wisdom of Cervantes, "Too much sanity may be madness – and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be."