In mid-2022, vegetable prices in Australia climbed steeply. In particular, iceberg lettuce prices made the news, with The Guardian reporting a price tag of $11.99 for a single lettuce. It came during a time of increasing worry about inflation and the cost of living. The Guardian’s article, in June, reported a 12.7% year-on-year increase in the cost of vegetables.
The cost of iceberg lettuce became a talking point and prompted a lot of jokes and ironic comments. “I have to become a carnivore to save money,” one Reddit contributor quipped. Queensland Police tweeted: “Police have commenced an investigation into the price of lettuce, just cos”. A Tic Toc photo of a lettuce in a plastic bag labelled “Lettuce Vuitton” went viral. But it was no joke. Crikey published a picture of iceberg lettuces on a Canberra supermarket shelf priced at $14.99 each.
The lettuce shortage also affected restaurants and the fast food industry. KFC was forced to substitute cabbage for lettuce in its wraps and burgers. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that home gardeners were growing their own, with plant nurseries and Bunnings seeing an uptick in seedling sales.
The causes of the price rises were many: floods, the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic. Vegetable prices had been significantly affected by floods in Northern New South Wales and Queensland early in 2022. The Lockyer Valley, a significant region for growing fresh vegetables, saw extensive flood damage. Farmers also pointed to the increased cost of fuel and fertiliser and the shortage of backpacker labour to harvest crops.
Although iceberg lettuce prices had returned to normal (around $2.50) by August, there were challenges still to come. Major rain events in October and November saw extensive flooding in New South Wales and Victoria, damaging crops and interrupting food supplies. Flooded roads interrupted transport, with hard-hit dairy farmers forced to pour their milk out onto the ground. In Victoria, the major fruit-growing areas of the Goulburn Valley were inundated, threatening the supply of apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and plums.
The Australian government expected that the supply of fruit and vegetables would be affected through the following December and March quarters, with Treasury estimates predicting that the floods would drive up prices by around eight per cent.