The past couple of months have been unusual – and for many people – frightening. Yes, there is the virus, but there is more than that. There are financial impacts and the perceived impacts on the food supply chain. Let’s face it when we hear about food processing plant closures, and then see empty shelves in the grocery store, it can lead one to think that we are running out of food.
But we also know that perception isn’t always reality. Yes, we will sometimes encounter empty shelves or store-imposed buying limits, but it is not because our country is running out of food. Although the food supply chain has certainly encountered some challenges, it is by no means broken.
Panic buying and restocking
One of the biggest reasons that we have been seeing empty grocery store shelves is panic buying. Grocery stores only have so much room for stock, and in order to avoid as much food waste as possible, they use a “Just in Time” inventory process. But when people panic buy and purchase much larger quantities than they normally would, the system can’t keep up and the result is temporarily empty shelves.
Milk dumping and plowing under crops
Another trend that has alarmed many people is news that farmers are having to dump large quantities of unprocessed milk or plow under their crops. This, however, has more to do with adjustments in the food system. Raw milk needs to be pasteurized or diverted to other products or new processors. These adjustments take time – and for perishable products – time is not something in abundance. The result is that excess product must be disposed of.
The borders are still open for essential travel
Even though we might not be taking a vacation to the US anytime soon, the borders are still open for essential travel and this includes the transport of goods including food. The US is our largest trading partner and over 50% of our food imports come from the US.[i]
Even if the borders were to close, however, we would still have plenty of food here in Canada. We still have supplies of Canadian apples and carrots left in cold storage from last fall as well as frozen products, and as the weather warms up, we’ll have more spring and summer crops. There would be less variety to be sure – but no shortage of food.
Closure of meat processing plants
Finally, you may have heard that the pandemic has caused the closure of food processing plants such as a large beef plant in Alberta, and a pork processing plant in Quebec. These were shut down to be sanitized when workers there contracted COVID-19. The Quebec plant has since reopened while the Alberta plant remains closed for the time being.
If these plants were processing perishable items such as milk, the product would have to be disposed of, however, with livestock, you can simply wait until the plant reopens. In the meantime, there is plenty of meat product coming into the country from the US.[ii]
In conclusion, while it is fair to say that COVID-19 has
affected our food supply chain, it has by no means broken it. We can remain
confident that there will continue to be an abundant supply of food during this
pandemic and after.