Comment: COVID-19 and the Canadian food supply chain

Canada’s food security isn’t threatened but supply chains will see substantial adjustment

Your bread and salad dressing will still be on the shelves, but that does not mean that everything is normal. Food supply chains are long, complex and certainly could be impacted by COVID-19.

Fruits and vegetables

Imported sources appear to be stable and the refrigerated trucking industry continues to supply adequate transport. It is likely that prices will rise because of seasonal changes and higher freight rates. Domestic sources are of more concern because of the dependence the Canadian fruit and vegetable sector has on seasonal foreign workers. COVID-19 travel restrictions pose a real threat to this sector.

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Livestock products

Dairy and meat production are spread out and unlikely to suffer many production problems, but at the processing level, the operations can be labour intensive and at risk. The impact has been limited, but the threat of a large-scale disruption of livestock processing cannot be ignored.

Grains, pulses and oilseeds

The major field crops and associated processing facilities are not likely to feel much effect from COVID-19 restrictions. Farms are very dispersed and the processing/handling facilities are highly automated. Combined with a significant carry-over of field crops in storage from last year, and normal production expectations, there is no risk to consumers of shortages for pulses, flour or canola oil. Of course, shoppers may find some empty shelves temporarily because of “panic” hoarding.

Food logistics

The COVID-19 reaction has brought to the surface how much society depends on the transportation and warehousing sector to move and store products that end up on grocery store shelves. It has also highlighted the essential nature of all the workers who stock shelves and serve at the checkouts. All these people must operate in the presence of possible infection. While no stores or supply chains have ceased operations, the biggest impact is in the food-service industry that supplies the restaurant and hotel trade.

As with all crisis situations, some opportunities can also be expected. Prior to COVID-19 we were seeing home delivery of groceries, but this has been a very difficult and slow development.

Now that home delivery is so desirable, they are growing rapidly, and gathering the critical mass required to compete effectively with supermarkets. As online ordering and delivery become easier to use, the demand of this group should continue to grow long after the immediate threat has passed.

Perhaps more importantly, consumers are forming new habits and trying new approaches. Working at home might make preparing food at home more appealing.

Many are concerned with storing staples for an extended quarantine. It should be noted that Canada is a major exporter of pulses, beef, pork, wheat and canola. Canadians should not be concerned with long-term famine. The major concerns are with short-term supply chain breakdowns.

While industry may take time to adjust to drastic changes in consumer preferences, Canadians should not fear a total breakdown in the supply of food.

Dr. Barry Prentice, department of supply chain management in the Asper School of Business, and Dr. Derek Brewin, department of agribusiness and agricultural economics in the faculty of agricultural and food sciences, shared this op-ed on how COVID-19 has affected the Canadian food supply chain.

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