We’re already accustomed to medications, toilet paper, pasta and rice being hoarded by panic-stricken shoppers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, it seems many Australians are heeding ‘preppers’ – survivalists preparing for emergencies – by going down the road to self-sufficiency.
Bunnings is the latest to impose purchase restrictions. Shoppers are limited to four items per person for cleaning and storage products, garden sprayers and batteries.
But it is continuing anxiety over food supplies that has prompted unprecedented sales of seeds, seedlings and edible plants.
South of Hobart, nurseryman Andrew Clarke told the ABC he sold more seedlings and vegetables in a weekend than he usually does in a month. He foreshadowed possible restrictions while he restocked from wholesalers.
Tomato and lettuce seedlings were in hot demand at the Alexandria Bunnings store in Sydney, even though their growing seasons are nearly at an end.
In South Australia, Barossa nursery manager Steve Neale reported “big, big increases” in sales, theorising that people in self-isolation are searching for new activities as much as alternative food sources.
Packet seeds and potting mix are being bought in record quantities and vertical gardens are being built worldwide as confinement draws people to the pleasure and practicality of gardening.
Jemma Reed, a 32-year-old mother from Scenic Rim, Queensland, who admits she has “gone a little above and beyond” stockpiling enough food and medicine to last a year, has bought vegetable seeds. But she is also breeding fish in her fish tanks, is amassing asthma puffers and tobacco pouches and has melted down gold and silver jewellery to trade for food if things take a turn for the worse.
Dianne Regan, who runs a Coronavirus Facebook group, has started growing tomatoes, lettuce, chives, mint, celery, basil and capsicum. She’s always wanted a vegie garden, but now has the time as well as the need for a source of fresh vegies if disaster strikes.
That desire to be prepared has long defined the survivalists labelled ‘doomsday preppers’
There’s less mockery of such self-sufficient types now that the world’s supply chains for food and everyday necessities have proved fallible. Shoppers have turned to the r/Preppers Reddit site for advice on long-life foods, tutorials for home-sewn protective masks and a grow-your-own-loofah guide.
Waneeta Pollock has lived in remote bush in northern NSW for more than a decade. She’s encouraged Australians to plant “at least one vegetable garden”.
“You’d be amazed at the amount of food you can grow in one suburban block,” she told Nine News.
“Everybody can do something to help lessen their impact on the environment and the system.
“As we’ve seen, the system doesn’t always help you.
“You have to be able to help yourself and your family if a real catastrophe happens, as no-one will be there to save you.”
Sam Steele, a 38-year-old from Eden on the New South Wales far south coast, doesn’t call himself a doomsday prepper. However, as well as stockpiling canned goods, UHT milk, noodles and pasta, and a year’s supply of butter, he has fruit and vegetables growing in his backyard garden, eggs from a growing flock of quails and honey from a hive of bees.
Mr Steele believes the COVID-19 crisis has exposed unsustainable consumer behaviour.
“We as a society have grown up with convenience in mind,” he said.
“You buy enough for tonight and maybe tomorrow night, and then you go back to the shops when you run out.”
Global Food Security expert Professor Evan Fraser agrees. Writing for The Conversation, he pointed out that global supply chains that link farmers and consumers using the principles of ‘just enough, just in time’ has a hidden cost – a loss of resilience.
“COVID-19 shows that we need to wake up and realise that if we really want to be resilient, we need to build more redundancies, buffers and firewalls into the systems we depend on for life.
“In practical terms, this means we should be keeping larger inventories and promoting a greater degree of regional self-sufficiency.”
Food activist Lou Ridsdale, writing in the Ballarat Courier, represents such regional resources. He is excited about the opportunities the pandemic has created, exhorting us all to “start pouring your energy into planting, planting, planting”.
He urges families to “utterly wrap their arms around gardening”, saying it will be “great for your health, wellbeing and ability to fight off disease and infections, (and) it will also ease your anxiety about the current state of play regarding food security and COVID-19”.
“My advice, too, is get gardening as a family. With social distancing and potential lockdown on our doorstep, along with school holidays, it is a great activity to do together. Growing food with kids will keep them interested in the process, including cooking and eating it. And a family that gardens together will enjoy all the many benefits associated with it including boosting of mental health.
“Gardening really takes you out of your head if you are anxious about the future, and is a great release from impending unknown outcomes of the coronavirus spread and other present confronting world issues. It grounds you, and will calm you to know you have food in your yard, given supplies have been compromised at the supermarket lately. And putting your hands in soil actually triggers the release of serotonin in your brain to ward off depression, not to mention home-gown taste is far superior and chemical free.”
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