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Pandemic offers chance to ‘reimagine’ food system

New report provides insight on tackling food insecurity, incentivizing farmers, and taking back aspects of domestic production
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Last March, as the pandemic set in and Canadians watched grocery store shelves empty, concerns arose about the vulnerabilities around Canada's food system.

A new report offers a glimpse into what those vulnerabilities are and how to rebuild the food system to ensure Canadians can withstand any future disruptions.

Released in January, Growing Stronger: Aiming for Resilience in our Canadian Food System is a joint initiative of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

It gathered input from people across the sector who were consulted about their experiences throughout the year.

Dr. Evan Fraser, director at the Arrell Food Institute and a co-chair of the project, shared key findings from the report during a virtual presentation on March 10 as part of the North & Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference. The event was hosted by the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA), the County of Renfrew, and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

While Canada's food system has performed reasonably well during the pandemic, feedback from participants provided a "sobering” picture of how fragile it really is, Fraser said.

“One executive, for instance, said to me that the system bent but didn't break, but it came close to breaking on a couple of key points,” Fraser said.

“I really think many of us owe a significant debt of gratitude to anybody who stocks a grocery store shelf, or drives a delivery truck, works in a food processing plant, labours on a farm. The people who did that kept most of us fed over the last year.”

But despite those efforts, other challenges arose.

With restaurants closed, farmers were left with overages of potatoes and milk normally destined for the hospitality industry.

A travel ban halted the arrival of temporary farm workers that would normally arrive from Latin American and the Caribbean, resulting in severe farm labour shortages.

When COVID-19 ran rampant through meatpacking workers, closing the plants for weeks at a time, three-quarters of the country's meatpacking capacity went out of commission.

“In an effort to create efficiency, now as a society we find ourselves in a situation where a small number of plants serve continental-sized markets, and this has proven brittle in the face of the virus, causing disruptions for consumers certainly, affecting farm incomes, and most critically, putting the lives of the people who work in these plants at risk,” Fraser said.

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Compounding the problem is that more people have been left unemployed over the year, causing more of the population to turn to food banks for help, he added.

But food insecurity for large parts of the population – Indigenous and marginalized communities being particularly impacted – has been a long-term problem that's just been highlighted by COVID-19.

“Food insecurity is not rising because we're not producing enough food or even because of disruptions in the supply system,” he said. “Food insecurity is rising because of lost wages and unemployment. Food insecurity, in other words, is a social and an economic issue and it bears little relationship with production.”

Recognizing these issues presents an ideal opportunity to "re-imagine” what Canada's food system looks like, Fraser said.

The top priority, he said, is addressing issues of food insecurity, which is fuelled by poverty, inequality, low wages, a high cost of living, and structural racism and colonialism.

“If Canada wants to ensure we are resilient to the next major problem in our food system, we must address the root causes of poverty and food insecurity,” Fraser said.

“This means those of us in authority have to give voice and empower Black, Indigenous and people of colour to be present at decision-making processes. This is an absolute must.”

That might mean examining new social programs, like a universal basic income, guaranteeing everyone can maintain a basic standard of living, he said.

The report also suggests that agriculture can be an economic development and innovation driver.

Some technologies under development include artificial intelligence that enables a farmer to manage each acre of land or animal individually, and biodegradable packaging that changes colour as food turns bad. 

“Overall, I'm hearing that there is the potential for a digital agricultural revolution to give nothing more than the tools to produce more food on less land with less waste and less pollution,” Fraser said.

But the report cautioned that technology is not a panacea for food security woes.

There’s also a need for policies that reward farmers for sequestering carbon, new labour standards and training that protect workers, and funding that encourages sector research and development.

At the same time, more investment in local food initiatives is needed to capitalize on the growing demand for locally produced food and agri-food products.

Vertical farming methods and e-commerce platforms are pushing the local food movement into experiencing a “renaissance."

“This does not mean that I believe in any way that we should give up on trade,” Fraser said. “I think we probably need to be considering how to reduce our reliance on imports, perhaps repatriating aspects of food production, specifically fruits and vegetables, and maybe nudging the system towards less centralization in food processing.”

Key to making these changes is moving away from operating in silos and fostering better collaboration among people with an interest in the agriculture sector, including government, business, the public and academia.

In that regard, he sees some early hope on the horizon.

In February, Agri-food Canada launched the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council, of which Fraser is a member, which is designed to provide "holistic” advice to the federal government on food issues. Members include producers, retailers, food security experts, and others from the sector.

Fraser sees it as a first step to moving forward on the recommendations from the Growing Stronger report.

“I really hope that, as the council takes form, it can become a clearinghouse for ideas, it can help build relationships across the sector and, hopefully, serve up strategic advice that government listens to,” he said.