Covid-19 associated disruption of airfreight supply chains is an ongoing concern for Australian exporters

While some fresh produce lines like citrus and table grapes are routinely transported by sea, other more perishable commodities such as mangoes and vegetables rely heavily on airfreight. Our close proximity to Asia and relatively low airfreight rates has helped to land orders with maximum freshness and shelf life. This can be particularly advantageous at the start of the season when demand and prices are higher.

Plane and produce on Tarmac

Weighing up sea vs airfreight

The Covid-19 associated disruption of airfreight supply chains is an ongoing concern for Australian exporters. Freight costs have increased by up to three times and capacity has decreased to about 10 – 25% of normal, despite support from the Federal Government’s IFAM program. These factors are prompting some horticulture exporters to explore options to ship more commodities by sea.

Mango grower, Ben Martin from Marto’s Mangoes in north Queensland, is one exporter weighing up sea vs airfreight. “This season we will probably ship mangoes to New Zealand and Hong Kong by sea as the cost of airfreight is currently so high that it would otherwise price us out of the market”, says Ben.

Ship in dock

While sea freight may appear as a logical alternative for some commodities, it is not always smooth sailing. Reefers can ensure the cold-chain is efficiently maintained but the duration of sea freight is the greatest risk for perishables. According to Summerfruit exporter, Rowan Little from Montague, any delays in sea freight supply chains will ‘eat away’ at remaining shelf life for customers. “Our monitoring has shown that a consignment can be stationary for up to half the total shipment time — waiting to be loaded onto the vessel, port calls, and any trans-shipping along the way” says Rowan. For stone fruit cultivars with inherently short shelf life, this means they may not be suitable for sea freight under current conditions where shipments to Asia can extend beyond 4 weeks.

Monitor and model the quality of Australian fresh produce exports

The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and Agriculture Victoria have been working together to monitor and model the quality of Australian fresh produce exports into Asian markets. Over the last 4 years, the project team has monitored handling conditions of more than 200 air and sea export shipments as well as assessing product quality on arrival at the importers. In addition, the team has simulated typical air and sea freight conditions to identify shelf life limits for vegetables, mangoes and Summerfruit.

This monitoring and simulation shipment work is helping to inform decision making around the feasibility of air and sea freight options for perishable commodities. It is also identifying opportunities for exporters to work collaboratively with chain partners to optimise supply chain logistics and handling.

Stonefruit bagged for export with a temperature logger

Australia’s fresh fruit and vegetable exports were valued at $1.6 billion in 2018/19. Asia and the Middle East account for most trade. Our image as a ‘clean and green’ producer of premium quality fresh produce has helped Australian exporters to develop a comparative advantage over competitors.


Story by Andrew Macnish, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries & Glenn Hale, Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions

The Serviced Supply Chains project is funded by the Hort Frontiers Asian Markets Fund (project AM15002), part of the Hort Frontiers strategic partnership initiative developed by Hort Innovation, with co-investment from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (Queensland), Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (Victoria), Manbulloo (mangoes), Montague (Summerfruit), Glen Grove (citrus), the Australian Government plus in-kind support from The University of Queensland and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

For more information: Supply chain Innovation, DAF Queensland

Supply chain information: Mango, Avocado, Vegetables

Andrew Macnish, Mob: 0475839609, E-mail:

Other resources

Summerfruit Using remote loggers to monitor temperatures of export fruit (Proftable stonefruit research - Agriculture Victoria)

Summerfruit Managing fruit quality for export (Proftable stonefruit research - Agriculture Victoria)

Table grapes Real-time temperature monitoring for sea-freight to Asia (Agriculture Victoria)