Lack of resilience

The food system is vulnerable to disruptions that accentuate the existing system problems.  This results from the underlying rules and structures of the system.  Always to be remembered is that now very few people self-provision  a significant part of their diet (see Goal 1) and almost everyone is significantly reliant on the market to acquire food.  So when the market doesn't function, we are vulnerable. Labour disruptions, long-distance supply chains, extreme climate events, political disputes, and food safety and public health emergencies all demonstrate the system's fragility under pressure.  At the core of the dilemma lies the belief among decision makers and food firms that millions of disaggregated actors, functioning over vast spaces and under the rules of advanced capitalism without any significant overarching planning and co-ordination, can adequately provide food to Canadians. The best that can be said is that the sheer number of actors means some redundancy exists in certain supply chains and this offers a certain margin of safety. Firms and employees responded with creative ideas to keep goods moving and services operational, but this could only compensate somewhat for the wider systemic problems.  Defenders of the dominant system argue that since there are typically only episodic shortages during emergency periods, the system works. Resilience and adaptive systems theory (see Frameworks, General, Resilience and Solutions), Canadian history (see Goal 2, Demand-supply Coordination, Lessons from WWII) and practice suggest the system is brittle and needs to be changed to build its resilience.  In many ways, it has continued to function at the expense of vulnerable people and firms (see James et al., 2021).

The COVID-19 emergency has shone a light on vulnerabilities that analysts have spoken about for decades.

  • 1 in 8 Canadians experienced food insecurity  pre-lockdown and Statistics Canada (2020) preliminary data conservatively suggest it is 1/7 post lockdown, with families with young children most at risk.  Food banks have reported steep increases in demand, often in the 20-50% range depending on location (Badets, 2020).Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank reported 200% increases in demand in fall (Jabakhanji, 2020), around the end of the CERB.
  • Globally, the World Food Program expects acute hunger to almost double as a result of the emergency (Anthem, 2020).  Food prices in many basic commodities have been under inflationary pressures in a number of countries, with export restrictions and stockpiling a response in some cases (Reuters, 2021).
  • Some emergency facilities were closed and shelters struggled to keep up with demand for spaces and food.
  • Food prices are rising in Canada, with a 3-5% increase predicted for 2021 (Charlebois et al., 2020).  For lower income Canadians, this is significant.
  • Food access was compromised outside of the dominant supermarket system, as many kinds of small stores, public markets, school food programs and community-based food projects were not deemed essential and could not remain open or had to move to curbside pickup and delivery during the lockdown.  This generated inequities and likely contributed to greater health problems particularly for indigenous, racialized, and low income communities (cf. Mihevc, 2020  and Feeding the City on the situation in Toronto, and other Canadian cities, see also James et al., 2021).
  • Although some have reaped record gross revenues (though not necessarily net revenue because of higher COVID-related costs), many food businesses have or are failing, especially SMEs related to the food service sector.  Based on a survey, the Chamber of Commerce and Statistics Canada predicted in August  2020 that 60% of restaurants would close within 3 months (Wu, 2020).  Fortunately, it appears that this has yet to happen, though there have been significant numbers of closures, many restaurants report they're barely holding on and employment in the sector dropped 27% from Feb. 2020 to Feb. 2021 according to Statistics Canada (Hannay, 2021).  Chain restaurants are more likely to emerge from the emergency than small independents, which may further distort the food service landscape in favour of food service conglomerates.  Many of these conglomerates dominate the quick service sector.
  • Although trucking food from the US was deemed essential, flow of goods was disrupted during lockdown because restaurants and restrooms along travel routes were closed or restricted access for truckers, and repair shops were sometimes closed or slow (White, 2021).  Fortunately, the US border remained open to essential functions (despite some threats to restrict goods by the US President), but 93 international governments have imposed some 200 restrictions that have affected trade during Covid (Glen, 2020).
  • In many cases during lockdowns, ship crews were not permitted to change because a country would not allow them to disembark and replacement crews could not travel to meet the ship (Marschke et al., 2020). The International Maritime Organization has estimated some 200,000 crew members have been so affected (Reguly, 2021). Availability of shipping containers was also disrupted as containers were stuck on boats or ports, or restrictions altered the scheduled flow of units. To deal with problems, some companies have stopped shipping containers inland, instead turning them around immediately (often empty) to higher value markets than agriculture, particularly consumer goods ordered online from Asia. Loading and unloading was reduced by restrictions on port workers and reduced numbers of truckers to haul goods from ports.  Container supply disruptions and higher charges are expected to continue through 2021 (Goodman et al., 2021; Cross, 2021). But these problems are an exacerbation of existing trends associated with corporate consolidation in the shipping industry, structural inefficiencies in bookings, scheduling ad port functions, and mega ships and ports that focus on core shipping routes (Sinclair et al., 2021). Agriculture however sometimes benefited from improved domestic rail service because of disruptions to non-agricultural goods (Pratt, 2020).
  • Canadian agricultural exports were projected early in the lockdown to drop 12-20% (Barichello, 2020). There have been reports that some farm prices were depressed with falling international demand (Elleby et al., 2020), and shifts in the domestic market (cf. Fraser, 2020 on the situation for chicken producers).  Some Canadian farm organizations are objecting to developing country efforts to stabilize their farm sector and assure food security by providing subsidies, arguing that they should quickly be rolled back as they will violate trade agreements (a dubious argument given existing food security provisions) and penalizes Canadian exports (Pratt, 2020).
  • Canada's excessive reliance on temporary foreign workers was exposed as many could not enter the country, and COVID outbreaks shut down operations, especially in slaughterhouses.  Workers were at higher risk because of crowded working and living conditions, and associated workplace and community spread. Justice for Farm Workers reported by the end of summer that approximately 1300 farm workers in Ontario contracted COVID - 19 and 3 died.  Regional abattoirs were overwhelmed with orders when the large operations closed (Dekay, 2020).
  • Similarly, already vulnerable migrant workers in international parts of the supply chain providing imported foods to Canada have also been much more at risk during the pandemic, for example seafood migrant workers in Asian fishing boats and processing plants. Supply-related disruptions have been associated with the virus spread, and restrictions on worker mobility causing labour shortages.  Although demand for canned and frozen seafood products increased, demand disruptions in the fresh seafood markets more than offset the gains, resulting in economic pressures for the sector which would add to migrant worker vulnerability (Marschke et al., 2020).
  • Many farmers reported reducing plantings, or leaving crop in the field at harvest due to labour shortages.
  • High levels of corporate concentration and limited numbers of very large scale plants  in meat slaughtering supplying much of the country meant that when a few key plants in Alberta and Quebec were closed, many producers didn't have other options for federally inspected meat slaughter. McDonald's reported importing from the US to compensate (CTV News, 2020). Livestock producers reported having to abort pregnant females and euthanize animals because they knew they wouldn't be able to move the young to markets in a timely way.  Mature animals had to be held back from slaughter because of plant closures related to worker illness, resulting in over-feeding and excess weight gain. All this generated significant revenue declines for producers, some of which may have been recoverable through the federal AgriRecovery program that was bolstered by additional federal contributions (Holland, 2020).
  • Based on a federal program through Farm Credit Canada, many farmers reported deferred loan repayments which provides short term relief, but with it comes worries about the longer term viability of a significant number of farmers affected by the pandemic (Holland, 2020).
  • Because the food system for perishable foods generally runs on a just-in-time inventory approach, consumer hoarding and panic buying and transport problems resulted in orders unfilled and product shorting because the inventory control systems couldn't deal with the change in behaviour.
  • Retail food sales were reported to have increased by 37% within a few weeks of lockdown, historic levels of increase (Dekay, 2020) with associated dramatic declines in food service sales of up to 70%. The average consumer food expenditure ratio shifted from 62/38 retail/restaurant % to 91/9, with the ratio post lockdown estimated at 74/26 (Charlebois et al., 2020). Many problems resulted from the loss of food service markets and the need to rapidly pivot to produce for retail, a consequence of the very specialist farm production and processing  and packaging systems that target these different markets.
  • Manufacturers found it was cheaper to throw out product originally packaged for food service (typically much larger units) than repackage for retail needs. Although restaurant waste was reduced due to inactivity, many perishables were still wasted from the lost restaurant markets. Milk had to be dumped (associated with lost food service markets and school closings), mushrooms destroyed, greenhouse production composted, flowers destroyed,  fish from aquaculture operations destroyed and seeding plans were rapidly reconfigured. Potatoes were moved to animal feedlots because of the collapse in food service french fry sales (Glen, 2020). However, supply managed sectors were able to re-allocate production quotas to shift downward production levels (cf. Fraser, 2020) which to some extent minimized the losses.
  • "Hero pay" was implemented by retailers on temporary bases and this served to highlight both the importance of many food system workers, but also the low wages in the sector (Charlebois et al., 2020).  Retailers had to hire more people but this did not offset  job losses in other precarious food system sectors, particularly food service, where 25% of positions were lost according to Statistics Canada, disproportionately affecting visible minority communities (Arora, 2021).
  • Demands for more plastic packaging of food products emerged due to fears about the virus being transmitted on food products.  Heavy reliance on takeout for food service sales has increased  single use and takeout containers, although how this is offset by lower overall demand for food service is not clear in Canada. However, globally, the estimate is a 250-300% increase in single use plastic because of the pandemic (The Economist, 2020)  Consumer concern about plastics may have declined slightly (Charlebois et al., 2020)
  • The pivot to food e-commerce and food delivery may increase costs for many consumers and will certainly contribute to more centralized supply chain processes as major retailers and some large restaurant chains build large distribution centres and dedicated kitchens for delivery.  Large fast food restaurant chains such as McDonald's and Wendy's were able to pivot operations and were still profitable in 2020, as was the largest food service distributor Sysco (White, 2021). SMEs are unlikely to be able to afford similar paths, resulting in increases in retail and food service  concentration. Some major retailers are also saying they will force suppliers to pay higher fees to help cover the costs of  the pivot to e-commerce.
  • Producers dependent on air transport saw supply gluts and transport price increases associated with reduced flights and additional logistics complications (Pratt, 2020)
  • Mental health is though to be deteriorating (Statistics Canada, 2020), partly associated with reduced ability to gather and break bread together.
  • Some municipalities have restricted hunting and fishing activities to limit COVID transmission or for safety reasons as more people have been out in the woods for recreation (see for example articles in Ontario Out of Doors Magazine).  This may have impacts on some families that hunt and fish for self-provisioning purposes.

In some ways, the COVID emergency has revealed the kinds of adjustments that are likely to be imposed by other urgent problems, such as poor diets. food insecurity and climate change.  Many citizens responded by focusing on local food sources and home gardening.  Many farms and processors with small scale and local supply chains ramped up production and distribution in response, some of it sold online. Some input providers have had to adjust their business models as sales declined, eg. fuel and some equipment. Hunger received more attention than usual and charitable work increased (though not sufficiently to address all the need). Anecdotal reports suggest some improved their diets because they were eating at home.

Some appear optimistic that the lessons of the COVID pandemic will cause food system actors and decision makers to create more resilient systems.  To what extent, for example, might manufacturers, distributors and retailers pivot more toward local food suppliers as a way to reduce reliance on long distance supply chains?

But the emergency has also exposed how the economically powerful are better positioned than the economically marginalized, whether food firm or individual worker or eater, so we can also anticipate that actions taken will reinforce the dominant power dynamics (cf. James et al., 2021), unless governments significantly intervene to restructure.