For many fruit and vegetable producers, the COVID-19 pandemic meant longer hours, significant shifts in demand (both increases and decreases), and uncertainty surrounding seasonal workers, among other concerns. Everyone working within the agriculture and agri-food supply chain deserve endless amounts of appreciation, and while there were pockets of compassion, I want to step back and look at the bigger picture.
For a lot of us, this pandemic has not freed our schedules to pursue passion projects, but thrown a wrench in plans. The quick adaptability of those along the agri-food supply chain reveals an intricate system that is capable of changing – if it needs to.
I spoke with Evan Fraser, director of Arrell Food Institute and associate professor at the University of Guelph with a focus on food security, on what COVID-19 means for Canada’s food system. It was not a regular interview with questions and answers. In fact, there were more questions than answers. Fraser started our call stating very clearly that he didn’t have any concrete answers, but rather was imagining some possibilities of what could happen.
We discussed how a supply chain shift – from large vendors, such as restaurants and stadiums, to grocery stores – would have an impact on fruit and vegetable producers. Fraser contemplated, “Does the homebuyer produce different kinds of demands for different products than a restaurant purchaser, cafeteria buyer, airline buyer, or sport venue?”
Even in the first couple months of the pandemic, some answers were starting to reveal themselves. On April 3, the CBC reported Cavendish Farms in P.E.I. advised Island potato growers to supply the company with spuds to “sell to other markets if they can,” as the company dealt with a sharp drop in demand for its products, like french fries. On the flip side, EarthFresh Foods noticed an increase in demand for fresh potatoes. We don’t know how things will play out, and only time can provide some clarity.
A reorganization of supply chains might also provoke discussions of larger reorganizations within our food system. Fraser says when we start reflecting on the lessons of this period, we should reflect on the fact that we are vulnerable to short-term disruptions. He suggests rethinking to what degree Canadian communities have regional self-sufficiency, and if it’s time to discuss investing more in Canada’s food processing sector. Fraser also brought up the issue of seasonal labour, sharing historic situations where the shortage of labour led to major investments in automation. You can read my full conversation with Evan Fraser here.
Is Canada’s food system, and all its moving parts, the best version we can come up with? Did the pandemic do us a favour by throwing a wrench into a system that was going to break eventually?
Is it so ridiculous to use these months of relative stillness to envision a food system that is more efficient, sustainable, and equitable than the current one? As producers with the most skin the game, what does a better agriculture and agri-food system look like to you? What does it look like within Canada, and if we take a larger step back and think globally? From soil to store, where can we do better?
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