Comment: Is food ok?

Widely diverging views on the pandemic’s impact on food supply are a pickle for the casual observer. What lessons can we learn?

“Maybe we don’t want a system that requires $300 million of money going into charitable food banks in order to be resilient to the next shock.” – Evan Fraser.

It’s a jarring read on a morning scroll through Twitter: “Plant all the food you can… we’re headed this season and next several into some massively different circumstances for food availability.”

Around Manitoba, early-planted crops are sprouting. In grocery stores, prices feel a little higher but the shelves are full.

Is doom really coming, as the above tweet by environment and resource researcher Jodi Koberinski suggests?

Koberinski based predictions on climate change-related weather events, drought, and the effects of COVID-19 on producing countries like India.

This seems to oppose what economists Ryan Cardwell and Alan Kerr wrote this spring in an introduction to a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics.

Despite many shocks, “the Canadian agri-food sector appears to have returned to its pre-pandemic equilibrium,” they wrote. There weren’t catastrophic food shortages or price increases in Canada. Farm income is projected to reach record highs.

Koberinski co-authored a recent paper calling for significant bolstering of local food production, including branching into urban agriculture.

This was a common refrain early in the pandemic as COVID-19 outbreaks shuttered meat packers and slowed other food processors. The idea — overreliance on large, centralized processing and distribution is a weakness.

These were unfounded, wrote Cardwell and Kerr. “Calls (for local food production) would increase food insecurity and they illustrate a fundamental misunderstanding of economic principles.”

Koberinski called the outright sidelining of food system criticism “hubris.”

So which is it?

Is Canada’s food system a sinking ship or do we keep sailing merrily on?

The pandemic caused a rise in food insecurity, that Koberinsky, Kerr, Cardwell and others agree on.

Statistics Canada says in May 2020, food insecurity (e.g. going hungry because there was no money to buy food) had increased to 14.6 per cent from 10.5 per cent in 2017-18 — likely due to job loss or reduced work.

“Some 25 per cent of Harvest applications this spring were from Manitobans and families who had never needed food assistance before,” according to food bank Harvest Manitoba.

A report from Food Banks Canada says an influx of relief in the form of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) reduced food bank use but said food banks worried use would rise when that program ended.

Food production, processing and distribution workers also saw significant struggles.

Grocery store cashiers and stockers were suddenly ‘front line workers’ and while some received pay raises to reflect that, anecdotal evidence suggests workers’ stress also rose significantly.

“It’s been stressful and at times scary,” a store worker told the Canadian Press in October. “And it’s been really, really busy with online orders and extra cleaning.”

“It’s really overwhelming when we see the number of cases rising every day,” another worker said in the same article.

Meat-processing plants were hot spots of COVID-19 cases and deaths. In spring of 2020, Cargill’s beef-processing plant in High River, Alberta saw about 950 workers test positive for COVID-19. Three workers died.

At almost the same time, an outbreak at the Brooks, Alberta JBS processing plant saw 650 employees become ill and one worker died.

Both plants shut down to try to stop the spread of the virus.

In Manitoba, Maple Leaf Foods in Brandon saw dozens of COVID-19 cases in August.

The plant didn’t shutter but the union representing workers told the Co-operator employees were “freaked, panicked, scared to bring the disease home.”

There’s also the issue of temporary foreign workers brought from places like Jamaica and Mexico to raise vegetable and fruit crops over the summer. Manitoba saw relatively few confirmed cases of COVID-19 among workers, but in southern Ontario, hundreds of workers fell ill. Some died far from home.

Labour issues disproportionally affected marginalized groups says the recent report Growing Stronger from the Arrell Food Institute and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

Disruptions to pork and beef processing in Canada and the U.S. saw hog and cattle prices plummet, gutting producers’ bottom lines.

Sudden shifts in consumer behaviour as restaurants and food services closed led to surpluses of milk, eggs and potatoes, among others, as processors struggled to adapt. Some of this was simply dumped.

The general consensus from many food industry members was that the food system “bent but didn’t break,” says the Growing Stronger report.

“The Canadian food system did a remarkable job under unbelievably difficult circumstances keeping the majority of Canadians fed, and I would like to say, on the record, thank you,” said Evan Fraser, one of the authors of the Growing Stronger report in an interview with the Co-operator.

However, how good the food system looks today probably depends on where you’re standing, he added. The food system is less a whole system and more a portfolio of systems, he added.

As Cardwell, Kerr and their co-authors point out, Canadian food has largely proved resilient. However, as Koberinski told the Co-operator, there are glaring weaknesses also.

“COVID revealed some long-standing structural issues with our food system related to labour and related to food insecurity, and we should take this opportunity today to ask the tough questions,” Fraser said.

“Is it appropriate for the people who we depend on to keep the system going to be the lowest paid in the system?” he asked. These low-wage workers are often immigrants and people of colour and often they have little job security, he added.

We could also ask, Fraser said, why can’t many Canadians afford to eat?

“Maybe we don’t want a system that requires $300 million of money going into charitable food banks in order to be resilient to the next shock,” he said.

“Do we want to live in a country that has those structural problems embedded in how we feed ourselves?”

Koberinski advocates for a radical revamp of the food system — looking at ideas such as largely regionally sourced food and publicly available food. Cardwell and Kerr call for more minor tweaks.

Whatever the case, this should be a teachable moment, said Fraser.

“The danger, or the risk we face is that we don’t learn,” he said. “So let’s learn.”

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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