As 2020 draws to close, it seems fitting to reflect on the challenges and opportunities coming out of the Canadian beef industry’s experience navigating the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of this year, no one could have predicted the impact that a human pandemic could have on cattle producers and the broader industry.
It’s easy to only focus on the negatives, but I’m a big believer that in every storm cloud we need to look for a silver lining. This can be especially difficult when times are tough, but perseverance is the key factor that has kept our industry strong and able to adapt.
From the beginning of the pandemic, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) took a collaborative approach to our response efforts. As part of our emergency response plan, we immediately initiated several cross-organizational teams, which included industry leaders, provincial cattle organizations, policy professionals, industry stakeholders, the scientific community and media. Our focus was on maintaining business continuity — keeping our borders open to trade, ensuring inspection services remained available, ensuring clear and timely communication, and developing and circulating best practices based on public health recommendations for a wide range of industry activities.
This enhanced communication effort required us to find new ways to connect including launching new initiatives like virtual producer town halls, virtual media scrums, and recorded video updates shared through our social media channels to keep information flowing in a timely way. We quickly learned that we couldn’t over-communicate during the height of the first wave. There wasn’t a silver bullet in getting information out to all cattle producers across Canada, but we strived to extend the reach of our efforts by working closely with our provincial member organizations and national partners.
We also modified our approach to our advocacy efforts in Ottawa. CCA quickly realized that it was critical to work with national organizations from outside of our industry, such as pork and dairy, on recommendations to the Government of Canada for disaster relief assistance in the development of set-aside programs, and enhancements to business risk management (BRM) programs.
One fact that was reinforced over the past nine months is the current suite of business risk management (BRM) programs, designed to help producers manage a disaster, need substantive retooling. AgriStability proved to be mostly unhelpful, while AgriRecovery has potential, but is slow and cumbersome to access. In the future, it is important that programs are not developed on the fly as this inevitably results in programs not meeting the needs of producers, mistakes being made and groups being left out. It is important that BRM program enhancements provide meaningful and timely support to address current and future challenges facing our industry.
An unexpected opportunity arising from the pandemic is consumers becoming increasingly engaged in conversations about Canada’s food system and where their food comes from. This was prompted by temporary supply chain disruptions, including the idling of processing plants in May 2020, which had implications for retailers, grocers and consumers. For the first time, consumers experienced store shelves empty of the food staples that they rely on. Not surprisingly, this resulted in emotional, and at times irrational, reactions, such as consumers stockpiling food and household items. As an industry, we worked hard to communicate positive messaging to consumers that, although challenged, Canada’s food supply chain was intact and functioning.
Recalling that silver lining, attention on our food supply provided an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with Canadian consumers. CCA partnered with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture on a successful campaign called “Food for Thought” that focused on raising public awareness on the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on Canadian farmers and producers. The first phase of the campaign focused on the rising cost of food, the number of jobs that agriculture employs and how the future of the country is tied to our ability to produce food. Moving forward it is important that as an industry, we collectively work to maintain this important connection and trust with consumers.
Last, the COVID-19 pandemic experience is a powerful reminder for the agriculture sector of the need to review and enhance our emergency response plans so they can be effectively deployed in the event of a foreign animal disease outbreak. Establishing comprehensive prevention, preparedness, response and recovery approaches will reduce the effect of a potential foreign animal disease outbreak on our industry. We are not immune to threats of an animal health outbreak such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). A domestic FMD outbreak could represent one of the worst-case scenarios for Canada, with the potential for an estimated $60 billion impact to our economy. CCA continues to engage the Government of Canada on the preventative measures needed to readily respond to an FMD outbreak and other foreign animal diseases.
For the rest of 2020, CCA staff and directors will continue to work collaboratively with our partners on any response needed during the second wave of the pandemic as well as moving forward on other key priorities areas.
On behalf of CCA’s board and staff, I’d like to wish Canadian beef producers and their families from coast to coast a happy holiday season. May 2021 bring you good health and optimism, as well as growth for our industry.