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Food, History and COVID

April 29, 2020
By: 
Evan Fraser
Director
Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph
Malcolm Campbell
Vice-president Research
University of Guelph
Rene Van Acker
Dean
Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph


After healthcare, our food system may be the sector of the economy most impacted by the pandemic.  Worries about food security, and food supply chains, started early in the pandemic, when millions of Canadians simultaneously stocked up on food essentials. The spike in demand depleted inventories and the sight of empty grocery store shelves caught many Canadians off guard. Luckily, we have an extremely adaptable industry that rose to the challenge and within two weeks store inventories had largely returned to normal. Nevertheless, significant challenges for the food sector still exist.

 

Another huge challenge is how to deal with the shuttering of our restaurants and cafeterias. In addition to lost jobs and devastated businesses, the shutdown has caused a massive supply chain problem.  Prior to the pandemic, most of us spent significant amounts of money purchasing food that was prepared outside of the home. This is no longer the case. And this means that farmers and food processors are having to quickly reorganize away from supplying venues that are now dark.

The pandemic is also revealing other hitherto unexamined bottlenecks in our food system. The way in which our farms depend on temporary foreign workers has been highlighted as a major challenge. Similarly, keeping our food processing sector operating as staff test positive for the virus is proving difficult. There is also a massive food security crisis looming amongst low income Canadians, many of whom have lost their jobs and seen wages plummet.

 

To address these extraordinary challenges, government, philanthropy, academia, industry, and civil society have risen up in an extraordinary display of solidarity and flexibility. Canadians should be proud and thankful of the exceptional work that has gone into managing this crisis.

 

One of the lessons that we need to learn, however, is that we could have been better prepared. Unlike other countries, including the United States, Canada did not go into this crisis with a food security plan in place. Other countries had already put ideas on paper to guide how to keep food systems running in the event of a series of worst-case scenarios. If we had conducted such an exercise, then we would have been better prepared for the challenges we currently are facing.

 

After all, it’s not like we should have been caught unaware. Experts have been warning for years that we are vulnerable to pandemics and we have history to guide us as well. For instance, maintaining food systems was a major preoccupation for governments and experts 100 years ago, during World War I. Then, the president of the Ontario Agricultural College, George Creelman, became a formal advisor to the government whose job was to ameliorate the effects of food shortages. This role took him to France and England, where he explored how Canada could help with serious food security issues that loomed large at that time. Creelman’s work highlights the importance that was placed on having strong food security plans during a crisis.

We should all take note that although food security planning during a pandemic may be new to this generation, it has incredibly strong antecedents in the wartime planning of generations past. To paraphrase a wartime politician, Winston Churchill once said that one should never waste a crisis. In keeping with Churchill’s remarks, like the wartime planners that came before us, we believe that developing a plan to maintain food security and food system integrity during our current crisis is imperative. In fact, it could be one of the positive legacies that comes out of this pandemic.

Stakeholders in the food sector, along with government, should commit now to working together in the weeks and months to come and develop such a plan. The process to develop this plan would need the active participation of all relevant players, from farmer groups through to poverty activists. It would require the establishment of high-level principles and involve a contingency planning exercise based on potential “worst-case” scenarios.

Doing this now is especially important as the threat of major disruptions to the world’s food system will not simply go away once we recover from COVID-19. Consider the nightmarish prospect of an avian influenza epidemic that might have a 20% mortality rate and mostly affect younger people? Or the potential disruptions that could be caused by massive climate change events such as droughts and wildfires in key food producing regions around the globe? We need to plan today, to avert these crises tomorrow.

 

As we look to the future, most experts predict that the pace of disruption will increase. Preparedness planning is one of the best tools we have to proactively ensure that aspects of our society, especially fundamental aspects like our food system, function even under extreme scenarios. We all recognise the importance of insurance for our homes and our health care. We should take the same perspective with the systems that nourish us.

 

We will overcome COVID-19. The real question is will we learn important lessons for our food system about resilience and preparedness that help us all navigate the next major disruption?