The surge of interest in purchasing locally produced food was a silver lining to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This support, however, reveals the fragmented nature of Canada’s food system.
“I think part of the interest in local food and trying to change the places that you’re getting food was a response to peoples’ risk perceptions. I totally agree that most consumers are altruistic and want to support local farmers and the local economy,” said Ellen Goddard, professor of resource economic and environmental sociology at the University of Alberta. Goddard was part of a recent webinar on food affordability and access, hosted by The Globe & Mail.
“But I also think in the case of the pandemic, people were thinking that if I have a relationship with some local suppliers, I will be less dependent on grocery stores who may not be able to satisfy the demands for everybody in my city overnight when we’re having these shocks to the supply system.”
The public’s interest in locally produced food highlights the diversity of supply chains within Canada’s food system, something that isn’t widely understood by the public.
“One of the things that really came to light during the pandemic was the fact that people had no sense that there was another option outside of the industrial food system,” said Joshna Maharah, author and chef.
“People were sort of blown away that you could buy food direct from farmers. They didn’t know that that was a possibility. So I think part of our job here is to do a more accurate representation of the entirety of the collection of systems that exist to move our food from field to kitchen to table.”
With questions about overreliance on large food processors arising from supply chain disruptions, such as major packing plant slowdowns, the panelists argued that greater awareness and support for all types of supply chains are necessary.
“We are a major exporter of agricultural food products, and the supply chain for exports into global markets is going to be very different from the supply chain for local food systems,” said Goddard. “We need to be able to support everything that will grow success in agriculture and in our agribusinesses but also will satisfy our food needs within the country.”
More balance is required, said Gisèle Yasmeen, executive director of Food Secure Canada. “We have an opportunity here to invest in infrastructure to build more resilient local and regional supply chains,” she stated, noting that many small and medium-sized food production companies in Canada don’t have access to uninterrupted distribution and storage that maintains the correct temperature for a product, known as cold chain.
Another gap in the food system is how past closures of food processing facilities have forced some Canadian-grown raw ingredients, such as pulses and seafood, to be shipped around the world for processing before being sold back to Canadians.
“These are some of the externalities that show up because we have reduced our domestic processing as dramatically as we have,” said Maharah. “These are the things that we need to consider because it seems so ridiculous that Canadian fruit would be exported to be processed somewhere and then we receive it again as fruit punch or apple sauce.”
While Canadian Cattlemen’s Association President Bob Lowe agreed the country needs more local food supply chains, he believes the Canadian food system requires all sizes of production to be resilient in turbulent times.
“We need the whole system, and the whole system has to be supported by Canadians,” he said.
“We’re one of the few countries in the world that, according to the UN, will have the ability to produce more food than they consume. We have an obligation not only economically but just an obligation to the world to supply them with that food.”