Central to food system change is building resilience in the face of stressors, which potentially reduces both the number and types of emergencies that occur within the food system, and increases its capacity to respond to emergencies with origins outside the food system (see Get Started, Problems, General, Lack of Resilience). Emergencies, however, will always be with us, and emergency preparedness for threats to food system functions is essential. Unfortunately, work on food system emergencies is largely conducted as if the food system isn't contributing to emergencies by failing to be more resilient, despite prevention being in theory a key part of emergency preparedness. Building resilience is discussed in other parts of this site.
There are many different types of emergencies, including war, terrorism, public order disruption, pandemics and other biological hazards, and natural disasters. Although such acute emergencies provide lessons for preparedness, here we address the somewhat more "subtle" emergencies that result in significant system disruption that wouldn't necessarily be anticipated and can be the knock-on results of other perturbations - border closures, breakdowns in the energy grid, work stoppages, more localized public health emergencies, political retaliations, and weather disruptions (floods, droughts, storms). The discussion is specific to the food system, though obviously it is affected by wider interventions, including those related to the economy and employment. Food safety emergencies are addressed under Goal 4. Some elements of natural disasters for agriculture are covered under Goal 6. Change strategies discussed under Goal 5 Sustainable Food will also build system resilience.
Many food firms have emergency plans. Governments communicate with residents about having emergency food stockpiles. But food is actually only a limited part of emergency preparedness. Perhaps the only time this was not the case was WWII (see Supply-Demand Co-ordination, Lessons from WWII), understandably a very different context from most current emergencies. This section is about creating a more robust place for food in emergency preparedness.
Jurisdictions and limitations
Canada has an Emergency Management Framework for Canada. According to the EM Framework, "Provincial and territorial governments have responsibility for emergency management within their respective jurisdictions. The federal government exercises leadership at the national and international levels relating to emergency management responsibilities in its exclusive fields of jurisdictions and on lands and properties under federal responsibility."
Flowing from the Framework is a National Strategy for Critical Infrastructure that includes food. Working with the provinces and territories, it aims to create a coherent approach to assuring the resilience of critical infrastructure across the country. It recognizes that many emergencies are local and that municipal, provincial and critical infrastructure actors will often be first to respond, with the national government playing a coordinating role. In cases of national emergency, the federal government takes the lead, but given that much is within the legal purview of the provinces, always in collaboration. There's significant emphasis on working with industry through sector networks, because governments believe that owners and operators have the primary role in protecting critical infrastructure.
Legal frameworks are provided by the federal Emergencies Act and provincial equivalents (see Table). Public health emergencies can also be declared under provincial Public Health legislation, but typically this legislation does not provide all the necessary authorities Nationally, the Chief Public Health Officer for Canada and the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response of the Public Health Agency of Canada play a co-ordinating role. Provincial Emergency Measures authorities are usually required to compliment public health legislation. The response to Covid revealed confusion about what is an essential or priority service, in part because the Emergency Measures legislation in provinces is vague on this point and as a result, these essential services were named primarily through Orders-in-Council.
Table: Food and agriculture in Emergencies legislation
|Jurisdiction||Act and regulations||Food / agriculture?||Comments|
|Canada||Emergencies Act, no specific regulations||No mention, but can regulate the distribution and availability of essential goods, services and resources||Peace time version of War Measures Act, which was used for food system interventions in WWII|
|BC||Emergency Program Act||Under Section 10, Minister can "procure, fix prices for or ration food"; No agriculture||Under Regulations, Minister Social Services provides food for private and congregate dining; Food not mentioned as requirement under Local Authority EM Reg.|
|AB||Emergency Management Act||Under Section 19, Minister can "procure or fix prices or make an order to procure or fix prices for food"; No agriculture||No mention in regulations|
|SK||Emergency Planning Act||Under Section 18, the Minister can "procure or fix prices for food"; No agriculture||No specified regulations|
|MB||Emergency Measures Act||No mentions, except fixing prices for necessary goods, services and resources; No agriculture||No mentions|
Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act
|Food named as a necessary good in Act; Minister can use, procure, fix prices and distribute necessary goods (Section 7.02); No agriculture||No mention in regulations|
|QC||Civil Protection Act||Municipalities must provide food for evacuees and confined persons (section 93); No agriculture||Also stated in regulation on Warning and Mobilization procedures|
|NB||Emergency Measures Act||Emergency Measures Organization can procure food (section 7); Minister can procure food and fix prices (section 12); No agriculture||Under Regulation 84-7, Social Development provides food or meals to those without|
|PE||Emergency Measures Act||Emergency Measures Organization and Minister can procure food (sections 6 and 11); No agriculture||No specified regulations|
|NL||Emergency Services Act||No one can charge higher prices for food (section 23); No agriculture||No specified regulations|
|NS||Emergency Management Act||Procure food (section 8); no one can charge higher prices (section 16); No agriculture||Regulations reference contaminated food|
|YU||Civil Emergency Measures Act||Government can act to acquire and distribute food (section 9(1)); no agriculture||No specified regulations|
|NWT||Emergency Management Act||Minister through EMO may procure food (section 6(3)); no agriculture||No specified regulations|
|NU||Emergency Measures Act||Minister can procure and distribute food (section 13); No agriculture||No specified regulations|
This review reveals that:
- Food is a minimal preoccupation of emergency planning and no provinces have a robust approach to food systems in emergency planning
- There's a presumption in most legislation and plans that the market will continue to function, that dominant supply chain logistics will largely take care of themselves, with minimal need for government support or intervention.
- Many provinces have advisory groups that are primarily made up of the dominant food system actors.
- Alot of emergency planning is focused primarily on reinforcing food safety roles of existing authorities. This is obviously important, but insufficient as food system intervention.
- No FPT government mentions agriculture as a strategic sector in legislation or regulations
Regarding municipal emergency preparedness, most provinces and territories can or do require municipalities to have plans, but food is infrequently named as a component. For examples, the City of Toronto names food supply emergency as something to be prepared for, but provides no specific details on what would be done, beyond the general response elements. It also does not mention how food issues would be addressed in other emergencies that affect people's access to food. The Halifax Region Municipality only states that individuals and businesses are responsible for stocking up with food in the event of a hurricane. The Yellowknife Emergency Management Plan makes no mention of food.
According to Canada's Emergency Management Framework, the following are key components:
- Prevention and mitigation
The federal government has acknowledged that most EM work in Canada has focused on Preparedness and Response, and that Prevention has been particularly weak and that Recovery work must be better connected to Prevention of future emergencies.
In broad strokes, just as building food system resilience requires diversification, shorter and less concentrated supply chains, reduced scale and a wider approach to governance, so too does the Emergency Preparedness system need to similarly adapt. A highly concentrated sector with large scale actors is not resilient. Focusing on the 20% of the actors who produce 80% of the food (and by some accounts the ratio is now more like 10/90) just reinforces their dominant position and reduces resilience. In theory, emerging from analyses of food safety problems (Waltner-Toews, 1992), large scale operators obviously have more resources to devote to prevention and reaction, and this reduces the likelihood of minor emergencies. But paradoxically, their scale creates a greater likelihood of a widespread disaster because of their supply chain reach. If something goes wrong, it goes wrong over a wide geography.
The related food system difficulty is who participates in designing and operating the emergency preparedness system. Primarily the dominant actors will have the resources to voluntarily participate in such discussions, and to implement critical measures. In a food system landscape of limited governance and hundreds of thousands of firms, the large actors will be the most visible, and the easiest to quickly engage. Because emergency preparedness relies on provincial departments of agriculture, the focus will also be on the dominant actors and approaches. To some extent this problem was recognized during Covid, as governments provided funding for many measures targeted to SMEs. How successful these interventions will be remains unclear. But we do understand that the emergency reinforced the existing inequities, largely by ignoring the less dominant dimensions of the food system, problems only partly redressed by government supports. All this needs fixing.
Financing the transition
As with all prevention initiatives, the savings come from avoiding problems. Emergencies are a huge expense on every level. Recovery usually takes years and many things, including lives, are lost forever. Many emergencies and disasters are avoidable, but investments are not made, or budgets are cut, contributing to the problem. Complexity adds to the complications.
Clearly there are short to medium term costs to create a more robust prevention system. And many emergencies are unavoidable, though their impacts can be potentially reduced. So, the emergency system will cost more in the near term, and hopefully less in the long term.