It’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, grocery store shelves were emptying faster than they could be restocked, and many Canadians seemed to be in a near panic about stocking up on food, toilet paper and other necessities. Then came the baking boom as people tried to fill their time in lockdown with the aromas of homemade bread and other baked goods, which led to a country-wide shortage of staples like flour and yeast.
Or did it?
Were we ever really at risk of running out of food during this ongoing pandemic?
If the pandemic continues, will our supply chains be able to keep up?
What happens when next winter sets in?
Of all the anxieties that come with living during a pandemic, access to basic supplies is one many Canadians worry about. But what is the reality of our situation? Let’s explore.
There seem to be three major risk areas in terms of the health of our food supply chain:
Greater demand as consumers engage in panic buying and stockpiling.
Suppliers, manufacturers, transporters and other key players along the supply chain shutting down or slowing operations in response to outbreaks, or to allow for safe distancing and conditions among workers.
Restrictions on imports due to concerns of virus transmission, or low supply of imports due to changing situations around the globe.
Regarding that first one, we may think we’re out of the woods as many people have settled into this new (temporary) normal, but one of the biggest worries around this situation is the unpredictability. A second wave, or some other sudden concern could jumpstart the panic buying once again, so we can’t rule that out as something to watch and plan for.
Canada is a wealthy and fairly stable country. Most significantly, we have been a wealthy and stable country for long enough that we have had plenty of time to establish strong supply chains that rely on healthy domestic production as well as food imports rooted in generally strong international partnerships.
This does not mean that our supply chains are infallible, or that we are 100% safe from any impact. What it does mean is that we have a good deal of wiggle room to help us through.
Given that, let’s explore each of the three risk areas mentioned above...
We all remember the toilet paper panic at the start of this pandemic. And, although toilet paper is not a food item, it is a pretty important product and a good example for exploring this issue.
What really happened during the toilet paper shortage? Well, it wasn’t actually a shortage at all!
Here’s what happened: people suddenly started buying massive quantities, which emptied out store shelves. Since shops order stock based on past buying trends, the stock on hand was quickly bought out. Factories also generally produce based on projected orders, so they may have temporarily had a shortage due to a spike in demand from shops.
But that was all temporary. Of course, a further challenge has been stores, factories and transportation services having to modify processes to allow for safe distancing among employees and sanitation of equipment, but that was all doable with a bit of time and creativity.
In fact, Canada produces a great deal of toilet paper domestically, so other than the delay in catching up to demand and changing circumstances, we were never really at risk of a shortage.
What does that mean for food production and supplies? Well, it’s a pretty similar situation. For example, you may remember a sudden shortage in baking supplies like flour and yeast early on in the pandemic as people decided to try their hand at baking homemade goods. In fact, one US flour producer claimed the early pandemic demand was double the usual holiday demand!
As Canada is a major producer of wheat (with 2019 production estimated to be over 31 million tonnes), even though shelves may have temporarily been bare, we were not at risk of a genuine shortage there either.
What about other types of food? In 2007, it was determined that more than 70% of the food purchased by Canadians was produced domestically. So while we do rely on some international imports for our current consumer demands, we produce enough food domestically - including grains, fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, and dairy - to continue to feed the population and handle flashes of panic buying… assuming we can still keep our domestic supply lines running!
Along the supply chains, we have farmers and growers, producers, packaging operations, transportation services, storage facilities and finally, grocery stores, restaurants and other direct-to-consumer food merchants.
So, what happens when/if any of these links in the chain need to shut down due to an outbreak (either at the business location or within the community and/or workforce), or slow operations due to fewer available workers or in response to adaptive working conditions?
Well, this is where Canada genuinely could see an issue, which is why current efforts to slow the spread are so important.
This issue is actually pretty complex, as businesses have to factor in the cost and availability of PPE (personal protective equipment) for workers, cost and availability of regular supplies (as suppliers also face struggles related to COVID-19), a potentially fluctuating workforce as employees become ill, exhibit symptoms, must care for family members, etc., and a host of other issues and risk factors. In addition, even before the pandemic, Canada had issues of food insecurity in several areas and vulnerable demographics, which may become even more dire as the pandemic continues.
What can we do about this? Again, Canada is in the fortunate position of being a wealthy and stable country, but as individuals, it is so important that we do our part and follow the 3 basic recommendations as closely as possible: practice physical distancing, wear masks in public, and wash our hands.
This may even be a good time to look into how you can help support or advocate for vulnerable communities in your area or across the country.
As mentioned above, more than 70% of all food purchased by Canadian consumers is produced domestically. In addition, what we produce in Canada covers all the main food groups. We produce a variety of grains, meat and fish, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables.
What will happen come winter? We may find ourselves having to rely on frozen and canned produce more this winter as a great deal of our “fresh” produce in the winter months is grown in warmer climates and imported into the country.
Things like bananas, oranges, avocados, melons and most tropical fruit, which we import year-round as they simply don’t grow well in Canada may become harder to find. However, things like apples, blueberries, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, beans, carrots, pears, potatoes and so much more are grown in Canada and can be found in canned and frozen food sections year-round.
So, are food imports something to worry about? Yes and no. In terms of our own food security, Canada is on a strong footing. In terms of global stability, we will always be impacted to some degree by what goes on around the world, so that remains to be seen.
We also need to consider factors such as temporary foreign workers. Percentage-wise, Canada’s labour force is made up of a very small number of such workers, however, the vast majority of these workers work in agriculture; specifically on crop operations. Not only might we see a drop in the availability of these workers, but once here, it seems these workers are facing unsafe conditions making them more susceptible to COVID-19 infection. Perhaps one positive to come out of this pandemic will be a change in how temporary foreign workers are treated in Canada and a new respect for the immense value they bring.
Now, these 3 risk areas are also not the only areas to watch, and there are plenty more factors involved in these 3 areas as well. One of the hallmarks of this pandemic is that it is unpredictable and that it is impacting different countries and regions in different ways, as well as different industries in different ways.
As consumers, should we worry about Canada’s food supply chains? It is an area of concern, but we each play an extremely important role in helping maintain stability in our communities and across the country, which means we can take action.
What can we do? Once again, it’s those 3 key actions: practice physical distancing, wear masks and wash your hands.
When we do our part to help curb the spread, we help keep Canadians, as well as Canadian industries, healthy and strong. Those 3 actions may seem simplistic, but they make a huge difference. Let’s keep Canada strong, recognize where we need to improve, do what we can to help others, and together, we’ll get through this.
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