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Building food system resilience

Lately we have been hearing of the lack of foreign workers, not only in Canada and the U.S., but also in Europe. The industrialized world has grown to rely on cheap, migrant, seasonal, foreign agricultural workers.
Jo Graber column

Lately we have been hearing of the lack of foreign workers, not only in Canada and the U.S., but also in Europe. The industrialized world has grown to rely on cheap, migrant, seasonal, foreign agricultural workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted that reliance, resulting in failures to harvest crops and planting/seeding crops in time.

We have also seen closures of meat processing plants in the U.S. and Canada due to the lack of protecting the workers from coronavirus infections.

People living from one income to another have been flooding the food banks.

In addition, the demand has shifted from supply reduction to food services such as restaurants and increases to home consumer retail. That means food processing lines, as well as trucking, needed to be adjusted.

We are seeing a supply chain problem at various points – increased demand along with reduced supply. While there may be enough food, it may not be our favourite and it may be inaccessible to employees laid off due to the pandemic, resulting in loss of income.

None of this should be new to anyone in research, governments as well as non-government organizations, responsible for protecting and assisting the population during times of crises.

For instance, a research paper published in 2015 titled “How resilient is the United States’ food system to pandemics?” stated that limiting the disruption of critical infrastructures - such as electricity, water and food - during a pandemic is important for the survival and health of society.

It went on to state that the studies that have looked at this issue highlighted alarming gaps in preparedness. The model the study used revealed that a severe pandemic, with greater than a 25 per cent reduction in labor availability, can create significant and widespread food shortages, partly due to private companies in the food system still being unprepared for disruptions to the supply chain.

In 2020, global food supply chains remain large, vertically integrated (a single company owns or controls its suppliers, distributors, and/or retail outlets) ownedby multinational public and private corporations. More than 80 per cent of food is delivered through such supply chains. 

The primary focus is low cost and high efficiency at the risk of food security for the local population in regions around the world. Pressure to reduce cost has led to the merging of food companies. Today, only a few companies control the largest volume of food products in the global food system.

The paper concluded that to protect the public interest, the resilience of the food system must be improved against this and other hazards.

That was five years ago. It was one of several similar studies. Little has changed other than that we can now see it with our own eyes, not through a model, but through reality.  

To put the current pandemic into context, at the time of this writing there were under 250,000 deaths globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 1968 flu pandemic had approximately 1 million deaths. The 1956-1958 H2N2 flu resulted in 2 million deaths. The 1918 Flu Pandemic is estimated to have had 20 to 50 million deaths. We do not know what lies ahead, but it is time we listen to the ample warnings of the past.

So, what will we do about it? What will the multinational food companies do about it? What will governments do about it?

The current global food supply system has been the major contributor to the decrease of world hunger. However, that has contributed to increasing the world’s population to an unsustainable 7 billion plus. It has also created barriers for new food supply competitors, as well as barriers to new approaches to addressing some of the resulting social inequities. 

To ensure food system resilience - providing enough, nutritious and accessible food to all,including in the case of disruptions - is a difficult challenge for society, especially for government policy makers. Once the current pandemic is behind us, it will be up to all of us to make sure that appropriate changes will be made, especially locally and provincially.