IN DEPTH

Coronavirus puts $15 billion agricultural, seafood sector at risk

LIFELINE: Rock lobster fisher Callum McCarthy with empty cray pots in Portland, Victoria, after orders for the crustaceans were cancelled. The Victorian Government has since thrown a financial lifeline to lobster fishers, rolling over quotas until next year. Picture: Anthony Brady
LIFELINE: Rock lobster fisher Callum McCarthy with empty cray pots in Portland, Victoria, after orders for the crustaceans were cancelled. The Victorian Government has since thrown a financial lifeline to lobster fishers, rolling over quotas until next year. Picture: Anthony Brady

It wasn't the news that our drought-and bushfire-ravaged communities needed.

A potentially deadly human virus spreading rapidly throughout the population of our largest trading partner.

As China and surrounding Asian nations struggle to control the spread of COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus, with strict quarantine and movement restrictions on China's workforce, shockwaves are being felt across global markets.

Australian agricultural and seafood exporters are rightly nervous.

China is Australia's largest export market for agricultural, fisheries and forestry products - worth a cool $15.1 billion in 2018-19.

The Australian seafood sector has been hit particularly hard but just this week a trickle of orders has again started to flow to China from Australia's premium-priced seafood sector, albeit at historically low prices.

Much of the freight and distribution infrastructure to handle fresh, chilled product in China remains at a standstill because so many workers are in self-imposed quarantine at home, or cannot travel to work.

There may be some farm export businesses who could be significantly impacted if this continues for much longer, or by an economic downturn.

The seafood industry, particularly the gilt-edged rock lobster and abalone market, is regarded as something of a "canary in the coal mine" for Australian food producers because it tends to be the first to reflect good and bad spending trends across the Asian luxury markets.

"There may be some farm export businesses who could be significantly impacted if this continues for much longer, or by an economic downturn," said National Farmers Federation chief executive officer Tony Mahar.

"We're watching it very closely and are very conscious of the long-term risks to a host of farm industries."

Thanks to the China-Australia free trade agreement, China's rock lobster imports soared 200 per cent in value in three years to be worth more than $730 million in 2018-19, or 97 per cent of the industry's total export value.

However, fresh seafood sales to China shut down almost instantly on January 24 as restaurants, shopping centres and public places, including wet markets, became no-go zones for Chinese shoppers scared of exposure to the disease.

Abalone exports, worth about $83m last year, remain at a standstill, but the southern rock lobster industry in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia has been heartened this week by a limited number of fresh orders to China.

Sales of coral trout have also plunged with up to 40 boats being pulled from the water, according to Queensland's Seafood Industry Association.

Given recent rain in Australia, the local cropping sector is hoping there won't be widespread disruptions to the crop chemical manufacturers in China.

China is the major producer of both ready-made pesticides and the active ingredients that form the base of products formulated in Australia.

There are anecdotal reports from some suppliers in Australia about a shortage of glyphosate and the rush has been on in some areas for farmers to secure supply.

Australia's livestock producers are also nervous about the ramifications for red meat and wool markets but Rabobank's head of food and agribusiness, Tim Hunt, says the impact is likely to be "limited", especially if the virus is contained by March.

China's wool mills are scheduled to restart their processing operations next week and given the local wool market has seen virtually no impact so far, woolgrowers and sellers are optimistic.

There's also been limited impact on the red meat sectors, despite China having become Australia's largest export market for sheepmeat in 2019.

Strong global demand and limited domestic supply due to drought is helping to offset potential impacts.

However, regardless of when it was cleared up, coronavirus would "almost certainly" have more impact on global food and beverage industries - and particularly Australia - than the SARS epidemic in 2003.

"Back in 2002 before the SARS crisis, Australia sent 8 per cent of its ag exports to China, largely in the form of fibre for re-export," Mr Hunt said.

"Fast forward to 2020 and we send about 28 per cent, much of which is consumed within China. Stronger links have also been developed between Australia and China in terms of exports, tourism, education and investment - we have a very different environment."

This story Coronavirus puts $15 billion agricultural, seafood sector at risk first appeared on Newcastle Herald.