Agriculture Minister David Littleproud believes city-dwellers will need to consider the sustainability of food prices as Australia grapples with farm labour shortages.
But there’s more immediate concerns supermarket prices could be jacked up if desperate workforce needs aren’t met this year.
Mr Littleproud said the cost of food production and its impact on food prices was a “serious question” for the future.
“That is a conversation that particularly metropolitan Australians need to understand, that farmers have to be paid a fair price,” he told the National Press Club in Canberra on Thursday.
But he said consumers could be in for price pain sooner if harvest labour needs weren’t met.
“In the next couple of months, if you don’t get these people out there, there’s only one thing that’s going to happen – you’re going to see it at the supermarket.”
There is an estimated shortage of 26,000 harvest workers.
Farmers have struggled to fill farm jobs, putting a heavy reliance on overseas workers that has now dried up because of coronavirus border closures.
Locals have been reluctant to do harvest work, with the government restarting some migrant labour schemes for Pacific countries.
Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon disagreed food prices needed to go up if labour costs were increased to entice more Australians.
“Should we just pay them more and let that flow straight through to the consumer or force people to pay more for their consumables? I say no. It’s not necessary,” he said.
“If we’re innovative and smart and we lift productivity and get costs down, there might be scope to pay young people more.”
In Tuesday’s federal budget the government announced a $6000 relocation payment for people moving to work on farms.
Young people will be considered independent for youth allowance if they earn $15,000 from agricultural work between November 30 and the end of next year.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the focus should be on opening up premium markets, strengthening innovation and locking in productivity gains.
“Then you might be able to pay them more and save other costs, and therefore get them to market at the same price or something similar,” he said.
But his opponent argued there were many areas of agriculture which would still need physical labour.
“Mechanisation can’t do it all. You actually physically do need people with some of these commodities,” Mr Littleproud said.