In just a couple of months, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the food system drastically for producers and consumers.
Panelists on a recent video seminar hosted by the Canadian Club of Toronto say the food service industry shut down was the biggest impact on the agri-food sector and has made clear shortfalls and opportunities within the Canadian agri-food sector.
Why it matters: Food system challenges have an effect throughout the production system, down to the farm level.
Products that are more significant in food service industry lost most of their markets overnight.
“Examples that come to mind are lamb, veal or asparagus. People certainly enjoy buying those things in the grocery store as well, but they thrive in a hospitality, food service trade. Many of those farmers are experiencing a challenge in finding new markets for those products,” says Cathy Lennon, general manager of Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
Danielle Barran, president of McCain Foods Canada said the company’s potato grower partners across the country are sitting on 300 to 350 million pounds of potatoes.
“Our industry, like many others is very reliant on the food service and hospitality industry. That drastic shut down has really had a knock-on effect across our business and ultimately all the way down to our growers,” says Barran.
Garnet Lasby, president of Massilly North America, which makes metal caps for glass bottles, says “although unimportant in the grand scheme of things, we became an essential service very quickly.”
The ability to market food in smaller, consumer-friendly, sizes is now in demand, including the packaging.
Unfortunately, producers have been dealing with the lack of markets and profit opportunities by having to get rid of their product whether euthanizing their animals or dumping their milk.
The panelists said it’s due to the inability of the food system to pivot as quickly as necessary with their loss of major markets.
“The industry needed time at both the farm side and the processing side to change. (There are) millions and millions of dollars in equipment and packaging and inventory – you can’t just flip a switch and change some of those things overnight,” says Lennon.
Unfortunately, all of the panelists said the $252 million aid package announced May 5 was not enough to support all of these issues across the industry.
“I think our emphasis right now is to make sure that the money flows to those growers in need,” says Barran.
Both Barran and Lasby said they think the announcement on May 5 is one of many to come and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will stand by his word and continue to address the growing needs of producers.
However, Lasby says he is concerned the announcement didn’t reflect the complexity of the sector and the speed of the response he was hoping to see. There’s a whole sector effort to put together something as simple as a jar of tomato sauce.
“From Dofasco’s tin mill making steel to a U.S. company making the glass jar, the tomatoes being grown down in Chatham and a factory in Mississauga taking all the ingredients and putting them all together. That requires an enormous amount of people, enormous amount of machinery, and an enormous amount of effort that is very complicated,” says Lasby.
“When looking at meat processing we learned how challenging it is to have all of your meat processing in a few very large facilities. It’s a risk. There are a number of sectors in food processing that have disappeared from the landscape here in Canada,” says Lennon.
“I think the first step is having an initiative to ensuring that we do have a basic level of food security. We are very much an international business geared for export. But it’s very important that we have the ability to have that security in the food supply chain, and frankly right now, I think we have gotten away from that,” says Lasby.
There are a lot of factors to be addressed to ensure that Canada is the best possible place to process and package food.
“We need to make sure that the government and the taxation system is one that continues to be competitive and we continue to be a great export company, which is what our economy is ultimately based on,” says Barran.
The changes in the food industry since the beginning of COVID-19, with labour, personal protective equipment requirements and all the alterations to protect the safety of workers and food quality will ultimately have an impact on food pricing.
“Will the procedures required impact the cost of food? Absolutely, there’s no doubt in my mind. I don’t know what the number is but it is going to be a material amount,” says Lasby.
“I think one of the other big issues is going to be productivity. People are going to have fewer people in the same place doing the job as normal, which means things won’t be as efficient on the farm,” says Lennon.
Canada is seeing resiliency throughout this pandemic and there’s confidence some trends will continue following the pandemic, such as curb-side pick up and take-out options.
Small factories and local market initiatives are opportunities for producers and individuals in the agri-food industry during and following this pandemic.
“It’s difficult in a country our size. But a local and provincial initiative would see a lot more products getting into the market. If we could at the same time lower the level of bureaucracy in the food production and food processing industry it would be (beneficial),” says Lasby.
“It’s a very critical time in our industry, for agriculture, for processors and ultimately for our customers as well who are looking for very different new normal as we all navigate out of this,” says Barran.