Australian fruit growers on Monday called on state governments to build travel bubbles with coronavirus-free Pacific island states and hire seasonal farm workers to avoid rotting crops and food price increases.
Citrus Australia, a lobby group, called on the country's two most populous states to re-implement seasonal labor quotas.
"Both Victoria and New South Wales … have shown little urgency in resolving these issues," said Nathan Hancock, CEO of Citrus Australia.
"Safe and effective quarantine programs from the Pacific Islands, where there are almost no cases of Covid-19, can be implemented with political will."
He said both states had blocked industry proposals to ease restrictions on international arrivals and quarantine capacity.
"We urge Victorian Prime Minister Dan Andrews and Prime Minister of New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian to show leadership and remove bureaucratic inertia to prevent sensible and safe solutions to the seasonal workers crisis," said Hancock.
Backpackers pick tomatoes near Brisbane ahead of the pandemic
He said half of the nation's citrus fruits are under threat. Much of it is grown in the Sunraysia region of northwest Victoria and the Riverina region in southern New South Wales.
The harvest is typically picked by up to 140,000 backpackers – often foreign students on work holidays – and up to 12,000 seasonal workers from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and other Pacific countries.
However, most backpacker and worker hostels were closed during the pandemic and have yet to be operated at full capacity.
Mr Hancock said there are currently about 50,000 backpackers in Australia, but 1,000 are leaving the country every week.
"Their absence is being felt now as growers are unable to reap their crops, causing fresh fruit and vegetable prices to rise across Australia," he added.
Attempts to recruit local workers have been unsuccessful, Hancock said. Only 250 Australians would have registered.