Opinion: Labour crisis is about farm security, not food security

Food continues to be abundant, but some farms are under financial pressure due to labour shortages

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The COVID pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated long standing issues with respect to labour in the food system – both on farms and in food processing.

This is often presented in the context of a threat to food security but in reality the issue is more critical for farm security than food security. That is, we are not seeing issues with respect to food access for Canadians (or North Americans) but there is pressure on farm viability and profitability.

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While the food security argument might resonate more with policy makers and the general public (through the media), it is not clear that either the long term or currently worsened crisis has had any substantial effect on food security.

In the spring, we were all concerned about empty shelves but the system responded to the demand shocks and the disruptions were fairly short term.

We heard concerns about the temporary foreign workers program. Farmers felt vulnerable to missing the planting and early harvest season. There were reports of crops left in the field (such as asparagus) because of a lack of available labour to harvest.

At no time was there a concern about the ability to feed Canadians or Americans. There may have been small increases in price and small decreases in availability of some crops but overall we still had food available. There may have been less choice but there was lots available.

There was a more acute labour disruption when the large Cargill beef processing plant temporarily closed near Calgary due to a COVID outbreak.

There was some disruption to North American supply chains that were made worse by the concentration in the meat packing industry.

McDonalds had to leave Canada temporarily for beef supply. The key point was that they were able to get other beef and came back to Canada as the plant reopened.

The integrated beef supply chain in North America shifted product around to ensure that there was no interruption in supply for consumers. Prices went up a bit but we expect that to a degree in the summer too due to barbecue season, which was likely bigger this year because we were staying home.

There was, however, significant pain at the beef producer level. Cattle backed up with nowhere to go. Costs increased and prices decreased. The concentration of beef packing combined with the shortages of labour makes farmers vulnerable when processing is disrupted. It has not to date had a significant impact on consumers.

Labour and other issues have hurt the food processing sector in Canada. We struggle to add value to our farm products even though we export a significant proportion of our production of many commodities. This is not new.

We’ve lost some processing infrastructure in recent years but it has not reduced selection in Canadian food retailers and restaurants. Food prices have not likely increased as processors are often hurt by cheap imports. The loss of processing (and the constraint on growth) does hurt farmers though, leaving them with less choice to market and reducing the potential for higher returns in value added markets.

There is an opportunity to prioritize growth in processing. It will give Canadians who want it more local choices. More importantly, it will provide much greater stability and opportunity for farmers.

The narrative that labour and other constraints on both food production or processing will affect Canadian food security is overblown. There are, however, real and significant implications for producers in this country. It’s worth prioritizing. Let’s just understand the reason why. We can get food from trade and will always do that. Preserving a robust and resilient production sector in Canada is also critically important.

Mike von Massow is an associate professor in the Department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph. This first appeared at foodfocusguelph.ca.

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