John Ivison: Canada has avoided a food shortage of COVID-19, but the shock waves are not yet over


One of the few pleasant surprises that has emerged from the pandemic is that forecasts of food shortages have so far been exaggerated.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told the House of Commons Agriculture Committee that 30,000 temporary foreign workers have been approved and that more than 20,000 have already arrived in Canada to help plant and sow . Officials later said that 35,000 permits had been finalized and 26,000 had already arrived. This is less than the 45,000 who arrived in previous years, but it suggests that the crops will sink.

When COVID-19 struck for the first time and the government imposed a travel ban, that prospect seemed distant. But Ottawa subsequently made an exception for temporary foreign workers and provided $ 50 million to help employers impose a 14-day isolation period on foreign workers once they arrive.

Even if domestic production declines, we can still get out of the problem, said Sylvain Charlebois, director of agri-food analysis at Dalhousie University, noting that the loonie has returned after falling 8% in the first two weeks . Of March.

The worst fears about the grocery store’s bare shelves, as global supply chains collapsed, have come to naught.

Alberta’s meat processing plants, which have been hard hit by COVID among their workers, are back in operation, even if their capacity is reduced. Processors and farmers are finding innovative ways to compensate for the steep decline in restaurant operations, which previously accounted for more than a third of Canada’s food budgets.

The potential for disaster was apparent even before the coronavirus struck. According to Nielsen Global Connect, food prices were the number one concern for Canadians, before COVID – before debt, the economy and health. A quarter of Canadians said they could only afford the basics and 18% said they did not have spare money.

When the pandemic struck and millions of people were laid off, there was a risk of food shortages and price inflation. The first signs were not good. Retail sales for the week of March 21 hit a record $ 3 billion, up 54% from the previous year, with food accounting for 80% of the increase.

Consumer behavior and tastes have radically changed. Over a 10-week period, demand for baked goods increased 68%, according to Nielsen; sales of prepared foods increased 48%, frozen foods 36%, alcohol 33% and paper products 52%. Store shelves were favored before perimeters, with consumers storing canned goods and non-perishable foodstuffs.

The prices reflect this change. The cost of a can of baked beans increased by 19% between December and May, toilet paper by 12% and canned soup by 12%. In contrast, the price of apples, oranges and onions has actually dropped. Food inflation in April rose 3.4%, but panic purchases in mid-March have since abated as it has become clear that food supply chains are resilient.

“I was very impressed overall with the food industry,” said Charlebois. “He is often the forgotten child, but he has been hit hard by the decline in restaurant services and has managed to pivot impressively.”

However, fear has raised the prospect of food shortages in a population that has become complacent about the availability of healthy dishes.

A survey by the Charlebois department in Dalhousie, conducted a year before COVID, found that 76% of Canadians believed they had enough food and did not view access to food as a problem. By May, that number had dropped to 61%.

The potential for disaster was apparent even before the coronavirus struck

The fact that shelves continue to be stocked is a testament to the sophistication and dexterity of food supply chains. Potential bottlenecks appear to have been overcome, despite the closing of borders and the prospect of labor shortages. Farmers and processors have been helped by government assistance – Farm Credit Canada has made available an additional $ 5 billion in lending capacity – and a partial recovery in crop and livestock prices.

However, COVID’s shock waves will continue to be felt. The restoration will come back but not quickly. Private farmers in this market use e-commerce to reach consumers directly. Charlebois said there are now 50 online farmer’s markets in Canada.

Globally, countries that feel food insecure can restrict their exports, as Vietnam recently did with rice. The move was felt in Canada, where rice prices rose 9.2% last month. Canada exports more food than it imports, but our food would likely become much less exotic if export controls became more widespread. Fortunately, 42 members of the World Trade Organization have pledged to strengthen global trading systems against protectionism.

It’s a timely reminder that, for all our sophistication, all that lies between us and the ruin is six inches of topsoil and a farmer.

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