Coles cuts wilt growers' hopes

Claire TyrrellCountryman

Coles' new fruit and vegetable campaign could devastate WA's horticultural sector, according to industry players.

The supermarket chain on Monday announced it would reduce its fresh produce by up to 50 per cent, after a bumper growing season across Australia.

VegetablesWA executive officer Jim Turley labelled the move an "absolute disgrace".

Mr Turley said if Woolworths followed suit, it could drive people out of the industry.

"If this continues and a price war starts, it will drive growers off the land," he said.

"This is so serious that growers will find it very difficult to be viable in their business.

"People need to take notice of what's happening, otherwise there will not be a horticultural industry in 10 years. Where will be get fresh produce from then?"

Coles said its campaign would create a more certain market for Australian growers, who might otherwise have crops left in paddocks.

Loose Leaf Lettuce Company executive director Maureen Dobra said the campaign brought prices back to 1990s levels.

"We've been growing lettuce for 40 years and looking at the prices of vegetables now, they are similar to prices we got 20 years ago," the Gingin grower said.

"With all the cost increases we've had in wages, inputs and electricity, it is going to make it very hard to be sustainable. Growers need to make a living."

Ms Dobra said Coles' move would make it harder for smaller growers to compete with their larger counterparts.

"It will be impossible for a small-to-medium growers to be able to compete with those who grow for Coles," she said. "About 20 out of 500 WA businesses supply Coles."

She said the decision lacked economic sense.

"To reduce prices by 50 per cent at this time of year is ridiculous," Ms Dobra said. "Consumers can take advantage of seasonal markets, but to put a glut on the market is not good business."

National Farmers' Federation president Jock Laurie called on Coles to prove its campaign would not impact on farm gate prices for growers.

He said Coles' announcement coincided with a United Nations report on global food production.

"At the same time as the UN predicts that demand is soon going to exceed supply of food, Coles has chosen to slash fruit and vegetable prices," he said.

"The UN estimates that within the next 20 years, the world's population will need 50 per cent more food. The simple fact is this: unless food production increases, demand for food will outstrip supply, which means the cost of food will increase for consumers at home and abroad.

"What is urgently needed is increased investment in methods to increase food production, and sensible decision making around policy areas that threaten agriculture.

"Unless we can find a way to sustainably increase food production through such measures, consumers can expect to see food prices escalate as supplies fall further behind global demand."

Coles' latest move follows on from its campaign to reduce the price of meat and bread products.

Woolworths would not comment on whether it would drop its fruit and vegetable prices in response to Coles' campaign.

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