A common theme that emerges when talking to food-industry observers about the ongoing pandemic is that while Canada’s agriculture and food systems are highly efficient and productive, they lack resilience.
Six months into a pandemic that shows no signs of being over any time soon, cracks that were virtually invisible before are now becoming impossible to ignore.
For example, before the pandemic hit, the industry’s labour shortages were an industry insider discussion that was barely on the public’s radar.
Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, said the industry’s chronic labour problems make the name of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program a misnomer.
“In the 1960s, Canada embarked on what was then a stop-gap measure to address a short-term labour shortage, which was to allow temporary foreign workers into our country,” he said as part of an interview series recorded for Canada’s Digital Farm Show.
“Sixty years later we are structurally dependent on that — and they are not great jobs,” he said. “So it’s not really surprising that emerges as a weakness now.”
Canadians’ access to homegrown vegetables and fruits as well as to imported supplies from places such as California depends highly on economically disadvantaged people forced to leave their home countries to fill jobs North Americans won’t do.
As the pandemic unfolded it became clear that their employers were woefully unprepared to keep them safe.
Fraser said hyper-concentration in the meat-packing industry is another vulnerability that has emerged. When COVID-19 outbreaks shuttered plants, it quickly created supply chain disruptions and shortages exposing the “brittleness versus the efficiency of the just-in-time, just-enough delivery system.”
He noted some industry leaders have suggested moving to a “just-in-case” delivery system “where we create a food system to be prepared just in case bad stuff happens.”
That said, food security is for the most part in Canada a question of affordability rather than supply.
“It’s important to remember that there are two Canadas coming out of this,” said JoAnn McArthur, president of Nourish Food Marketing. Some have seen their discretionary incomes increase because they still have jobs and their opportunities to spend money are reduced. “Then you’ve got the other Canadians who are using food banks who are largely in the hospitality sector who are just trying to make rent.”
Canada at least has a publicly funded social safety net and community-supported food banks to support those who need access to food. That’s not the case in poorer countries where pandemic-induced poverty has doubled the number of hungry people on the planet.
The effects will be long lasting. “That 1,000 days from conception to your second birthday is critical to your cognitive development,” Fraser said. “A couple of years of bad food insecurity can actually set an entire generation back. This is a desperately serious situation that we as a global society face,” he said.
Primary producers, with the exception of hog and horticulture producers, actually survived the early stages of the pandemic remarkably unscathed.
However, there’s a long winter ahead that won’t be broken up by holidays someplace warm or trips to the city to attend conferences and trade shows.
“Farming at its core is a bit of a solitary activity but the farming community is hugely social,” said Len Kahn, head of Kahntact Marketing. “The most compelling reason farmers go to trade shows is social. So I think mental health has taken a hit, and it’s an unseen hit.”
Kahn also said times like these heighten awareness of connectivity issues on another front. Whereas the pandemic has accelerated use of online services in urban Canada, rural Canada remains woefully underserved, which limits farmers’ access to some of the emerging marketing and business opportunities.
None of these issues are easily resolved and most will involve significant investment. But not addressing them may prove more expensive in the long run.
“We’re in for a century of disruption. Whether it is climate change, or whether it’s one angry tweet away from closing borders — we know we need to be more resilient as a system,” Fraser said.
Note: For a special episode of Between the Rows, the podcast of Glacier FarmMedia that explores the pandemic and its effects, listen to ‘Reflections on pandemic life. How are we doing?‘