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Key Messages from the COVID-19 Surveys and Interviews

Between July and September 2020, we interviewed a range of people knowledgeable about the agri-food sectors in Australia and New Zealand. We asked questions about how they had been affected by the effects of COVID-19 up to June 2020 and what solutions, if any, they found. The work has now been published and we have made it open access so that it is freely available to all – you can download it here. Just below we summarise what we found out but see over the page for more detailed sector-based information.

To June 2020 at least, the agri-food sector in both countries proved resilient but that resilience was achieved via considerable effort on the part of farmers/growers, industry bodies, and government departments. It seems likely that there was a prevailing ‘make it work’ attitude that allowed individuals to get past the initial shock and find solutions.


Diagrammatic view of the agri-food system highlighting areas of direct impact from COVID-19 (coloured ovals). The subsystems (“social and cultural” etc.) depicted as recycling arrows are potential mechanisms for resilience.





While all the sectors have been resilient, they were affected in different ways and by differing degrees. Some industries have inherently high plasticity in that they can safely store or accumulate product in various ways and these industries achieved resilience using their production and process subsystem. Other industries have low plasticity and are configured for a steady throughput with minimal opportunities for storage or accumulation of product. These industries were substantially more challenged but did prove resilient largely by utilising their institutional subsystem (e.g.  negotiating with government departments to achieve solutions).

High-plasticity industry                                                                      Low-plasticity industry


Multidisciplinary  resilience framework configured for industries in which progress through the production and processing system can be interrupted by various means to give them plasticity (left; e.g. broadacre cropping) against those designed for a steady throughput with low plasticity (right; e.g. pork). The five resilience mechanisms are shown. The hotter the colour and the greater the size of the segment, the higher the degree of engagement of that mechanism. During this immediate phase (to June 2020) of response to COVID-19 both types of industries were resilient but via different mechanisms.

The effects of the pandemic are continuing, and we do not know if the resilience that has proved effect so far will continue. We are concerned about continued market disruptions, freight issues (cost and availability), and the availability of labour. We know that we need to follow these issues as this shock to our agri-food systems continue to develop.

The immediate impacts of COVID-19 control measures on agri-food systems in New Zealand and Australia (to June 2020)

Summarised from

The New Zealand and Australian agricultural sectors have faced significant challenges during the COVID-19 crisis. Agricultural production is a major contributor of GDP in both countries, making up nearly two-thirds of New Zealand goods export earnings and grossing USD 43 billion in Australia in 2019/2020.

Government restrictions on the movement of people and goods have impacted labour supply, provision of goods and services, efficiency of value chain operations, and market demand. Although agricultural production, as an essential service, was largely permitted to continue during lockdown, the restrictions forced the sectors to adopt a range of resilience mechanisms in order to perform as highly as they did during the lockdown. These mechanisms were particularly via the production and processing systems and through institutional activities. The positive ‘make it work’ attitude across both countries allowed individuals and organisations to quickly move into a solutions mode of thinking.

The short-term effects of COVID-19 control measures on agricultural systems were compared between New Zealand and Australia.

Domestic demand was negatively impacted by reduction of tourism and closure of food & beverage services. Lack of access to production inputs such as raw materials and machinery had  massive  drawbacks  in the  supply  chain.  The  government of both countries settled international trade agreements to ensure continued market access to essential imports and exports.

The closing of international borders and restricted internal movement saw significant seasonal labour shortages, particularly in horticulture. NZ viticulture is also highly dependent on overseas seasonal workers. However, as the harvest workforce was already established before lockdown, labour shortage was avoided. Bushfires resulted in poor grape harvest in Australia.

Shipping was less disrupted by border control than air freight, which was more favourable for Australia who rely on bulk shipping for most agricultural trade. However, the NZ government invested heavily in air freight to ensure high-value products could still reach key export markets.

Lockdown delayed slaughter resulting in animals held on farm longer. This coincided with a drought in NZ, leading to feed shortages for both red meat, pork and dairy industries which was mitigated by government support. NZ venison export revenue dropped due to the closure of the restaurants in Europe and the USA and tighter regulations of meat imported into China. On the contrary, Australia, emerging from a drought, entered a recovery phase with improvements in productivity and meat price.

Forestry was not classified essential and production ceased during the highest lockdown level. Surplus of logs and low demand from China, NZ’s main importer, drastically reduced log return.

Broadacre cropping industry showed little impact due to harvest coinciding with initial lockdown in both countries. Most production inputs such as fertiliser and seeds were already on-hand, however, agrichemicals and specialised equipment parts were difficult to obtain in Australia. There were difficulties getting equipment serviced in NZ due to dependence on imported manufacturing. Profitability was improved by shifting a greater proportion of wheat production into producing higher-value flour.

High plasticity industries such as red meat, forestry and processed dairy products can adjust production rate at different points in the processing chain e.g. foresters can leave trees standing or grain can be harvested then stored. Flexibility around inputs to the system as well as employing strong economic, social and cultural systems proved successful in ensuring resilience.

Low plasticity industries such as pork and chicken have a continuous, steady flow through the process chain and have minimal storage capacity for carcasses. Social distancing hampered throughput in processing plants e.g. abattoirs, as did a lack of skilled workforce. Delays in slaughter led to major feed shortage and animal welfare issues but resilience was achieved by institutional and social systems. This was demonstrated by the NZ government purchasing pork to donate to food banks, whereas in Australia, reorganization of the labour force into smaller groups improved productivity.

Survey results revealed that Australian and New Zealand businesses were impacted most by business risk and performance of supply chains. Although access to overseas markets and international labour were a concern, both countries exhibited ability to adapt to domestic resources. NZ’s relatively high export reliance meant greater focus in changing toward domestic markets and hence more time is expected for the impacts to be resolved.

Despite the difficulties inflicted by COVID-19, many opportunities have arisen from adapting to these new circumstances. There have been improved communication and co-operation within the agricultural community, incentive for technological innovation, streamlining of business management and greater consideration of workplace health and safety.

Both countries adapted to changes in the supply chain by diversifying export markets, developing value-added products and upskilling workers. The pandemic has tested resilience by learning to operate in variable and risky environments whilst maintaining profitability and long-term viability of the business.

Table 1. Summary of the key aspects of the impacts of COVID-19 by country and sector. “Horticulture” includes perennial horticulture and vegetable production. “Red meat” includes sheep, beef and venison. See SM9 for details. Sectors “permitted to operate” during the highest levels of shutdown included a requirement for distancing in the workplace and working from home, if possible, which reduced productivity and/or added complexity. ‘PPE’ refers to personal protective equipment. (reproduced from