UCalgary podcasts feature interviews with experts from our community on the COVID-19 situation.

Episode 14: Is our food supply at risk?

Apr 24, 2020

From grains and pulses to fruits and vegetables to beef and pork, on the world stage, Alberta is a major producer of food. How has coronavirus impacted our agribusiness sector? In this episode we talk to a panel of experts about every aspect of our food systems, from production to supply to retail, and what our supply chains and priorities might look like once we get past the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pierre-Gerlier Forest (PGF): I'm seeing signals of countries hoarding foods, so it will make trade more difficult. I'm seeing countries that are now adopting policies that says, "We should be completely self sufficient in terms of our food supply." You're seeing that even within Canada at this moment, some provinces are pushing an agenda of food sovereignty. This will make trade extremely difficult. Personally, I'm convinced that a lot of the free trade system that has been built over the last 30 years? Those agreements are not worth the paper on which they are printed now, and rebuilding them after the crisis should be one of our most important priorities at this moment.


Nuvyn Peters (NP): That was P.G. Forest, director of the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy. And this is UCalgary COVIDcast. I'm Nuvyn Peters.


Corey Hogan (CH): And I'm Corey Hogan. COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our society, and the agriculture and food sectors are no different.


NP: I sat down with P.G., Gary Stanford with the Alberta Wheat Commission and Cherie Copithorne-Barnes with CL Ranches Limited to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the agricultural and food sectors not only here in Alberta but beyond.


CH: Well I'm somebody who's always lived in cities and I tend to think of food as something that comes from the grocery store. But as COVID-19's crisis continues, I think many of us are worried about supply chains, food safety and other considerations that fall out of this crisis.


NP: Food security is another one that's absolutely critical at this time and certainly Canada, and Alberta in particular, has played a large role in ensuring that our economy remains vibrant, diversified, and the agricultural and agri-food industries have certainly been impacted significantly by COVID-19.


CH: Well and it's a great point, because when people think of Alberta, people tend to think of oil and gas, and that's pretty natural, given the size of the impact to the economy. But I believe the next-largest sector is agriculture, and when you start thinking about what kind of impacts that could have on broader society, it goes well beyond dollars and cents. It goes to feeding mouths.


NP: Absolutely. And we all know that at a time when we're going to the grocery store and there is no flour on the shelves, we sit back and we can't help but wonder, "don't we grow wheat here in Alberta? And shouldn't we be stocked full of wheat and barley here?" So it was an interesting conversation and it also led to an examination of what we in the post-secondary environment can do to help influence or shape the research, the narrative, of the impact of the agricultural industry in Alberta post-COVID.


CH: The study of the agricultural sector is not something that is foreign to the University of Calgary. One of the things that you talked about was the Simpson Centre.


NP: The Simpson Centre is a really new and innovative initiative undertaken by a partnership between the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and our Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. And it's really about creating a centre to drive research and innovation and cutting-edge critical thinking around agriculture and agri-food and agribusiness issues in order to better inform policy outcomes and contribute to the successful growth of the Canadian industry.


CH: Well it was a really interesting conversation and I certainly learned an awful lot. For starters, I now know food does not just come from the grocery store. Let's just go to it.


NP: Thanks so much for joining me today. I want to get started right away by asking both you, Cherie and Gary for your thoughts how the agriculture and agri-food sectors have been impacted by COVID-19?


Cherie Copithorne-Barnes (CCB): Well, from the beef industry's perspective, we've seen it on a multitude of layers. From the working side of it, especially in our feedlot industry who is so reliant on a lot of the temporary foreign workers help? They've been basically impeded by not being able to have enough employees at a lot of these feed lots to keep functioning at a full efficient manner, and it's been difficult for them to try and replace those temporary foreign workers who are on those continuous cycles. Obviously having to wait for that two week quarantine is very difficult, it's costly. But slowly but surely, they are seeing some resolution to that and that's helping. From the cow-calf side of it, what we're experiencing is something completely different. What we're experiencing is, this is the time of year when a lot of us are calving so we're in self-isolation whether we like it or not. But the reality is, it's also a time when we're trying to instill a lot of risk management tools, put them in place. Because of the crazy fluctuations in the commodity markets, our insurance programs have gotten to a point where premiums are unreachable. I can't afford to pay the premiums on them, so we are experiencing a stage where we're unable to insure our production at this point from the live calf perspective.


NP: Interesting. Gary, your thoughts on this?


Gary Stanford (GS): Yeah, I'm in the grain industry, I was on the Alberta Wheat Commission. We're looking at it from the aspect of how are we going to have enough grains to eat, flour to eat, pulse crops to eat? With the restaurant industry being closed down, it's had an effect on the flour mills and also on the production side. We're looking at what are we going to need to grow, or is there enough? We've had a lot of questions from urban people asking us, "Are we going to have enough flour? Are we going to have enough food? Are we going to have enough cereals, food to eat?" We've been looking at it as just how do we make sure that everyone feels safe, everyone feels like you've got a large amount of food? But also we've been having questions from overseas customers. "Are we going to be able to seed our crops, and to make sure that we have a constant supply?" This COVID has just changed the whole thought pattern of everything we do. We want to be sustainable, and we want to make sure that people feel comfortable. That message is trying to get out right now, it's just that yeah, we do have our products and we're looking forward to... We do have enough people to get our crops seeded.


NP: Certainly when I go to the grocery store, flour seems to be a hot commodity. Why is that, given that we do have so much wheat in our province?


GS: Well, most people like to go buy their loaves of bread at the grocery store. Also, when you bake bread at home, you need yeast, you need flour, you need milk, you need other products to mix with it. Most people aren't used to having that much at home, because you can buy a lot at the store and now they're saying to social distance, stay at home. People are like, "Okay, I need to have yeast, I need to have flour, learn how to bake at home," and I think that this is really going to change the way that we move forward in the future with this COVID. We're trying to explain to people, "We do have the products, we do have it there if people don't hoard it and we'll have lots for everybody." But it's just a whole new understanding of the industry as we move forward.


NP: Right. I saw a meme the other day that someone shared that said, "I didn't know that in the apocalypse there would be so much banana bread." It does seem to be true, so many people are staying at home and baking, and cooking for themselves. Certainly that the stay at home guidelines have impacted, as you mentioned, the restaurant industry, the producers as well too. From a global trade standpoint and an expert standpoint, will our global trade system survive this crisis? P.G., what are your thoughts on that?


PGF: I'd like to go back to your first question. Because from a government point of view, it has been a very different experience, especially in the first month of the crisis. In fact, the only sector that has shown any form of robustness has been food and agriculture. If you look at the crisis from a political perspective, you have seen the airline industry crash, then you have seen the retail industry crash. The thing that was actually growing during that period, especially the first month has been grocery, retail and wholesales. The government had no attention and the impression that at least one sector was spared at first. What we're seeing now is relatively new, and it will take time for government to start registering that the situation has changed since the beginning of the crisis. Of course as you just said, the very worrying signals coming from the global trade system at this moment.


CBB: I would also argue there though, we're also at a point or at a new change. Because I think what people are going to start to realize with what's happening with our packing plants, both on the beef and pork side, I think we're going to see some shortages starting to show up even domestically. Because with these plants having to shut down now, what it's creating is a massive backlog of animals that aren't coming to slaughter which should be. We're going to see some gaps in this system going forward, so domestically we're going to have to focus on keeping our own people satisfied first, so not create any kind of panic because of shortages beyond what they're already seeing. Then I think there is some opportunity once this balances itself out, and we are an exporting country, so there is some hope that we're going to be able to come through this relatively quickly once we get this new way of doing business through domestically.


PGF: [The global trade system after the crisis, which is I think a major question at this moment. I'm seeing signals of countries hoarding foods, so it will make trade more difficult. I'm seeing countries that are now adopting policies that says, "We should be completely self-sufficient in terms of our food supply." You're seeing that even within Canada at this moment, some provinces are pushing an agenda of food sovereignty. This will make trade extremely difficult. Personally, I'm convinced that a lot of the free trade system that has been built in the last 30 years? Those agreements are not worth the paper on which they are printed now, and rebuilding them after the crisis should be one of our most important priorities at this moment.


NP: How will the policy priorities of the Canadian government be impacted as a result of COVID in response to the agriculture and agri-food industry? What ought to be some of those guiding principles or priorities as we navigate our way out of this crisis?


GS: I believe that agriculture should be called an essential service, provincially and federally. We need to have our mechanics to fix the trucks that haul the grain. We need to make sure that we have our trains running, our grain elevator systems running. We need to make sure that we still have fuel to run our tractors on our farms. I believe that there needs to be a guideline that makes sure that everyone understands, that when they see farmers out feeding their cattle, they're out seeding their crops? That they are social distancing, but also that there's a requirement from us to make sure that we have enough food to feed all of Alberta and Canada, but also we're such a huge export nation to feed the rest of the world. We export our cereal grains to 60 countries around the world, and they've learned to rely on it. I think the government needs to have programs and trade in place, so that that way we can meet these requirements. I think that there's going to be concerns that the ports loading up facilities to move our products out into other countries, so there's some government guidelines that need to be put into place to make sure that they understand that we can do this safely and sustainably.


PGF: Yeah, I think what has been mentioned already, I think supply chain issues will become now the priority of every government in the country. A, because we need to feed people, but also because we'll start to see more and more problems in the supply chain. It was completely absent again from government priorities in the first month, but I think the next few weeks you will see more and more interventions in that area. The second issue is workforce, it's very clear. We have started to see the federal government moving in that space, but we need a much more aggressive approach. Again, I'm pretty sure that in the next few weeks people will realize that if we have nobody in the fields, there is nothing to eat in September. There is absolutely a need for... We are seeing foreign workers coming back. It's complicated, it's expensive. But everything is complicated and expensive now, so I don't see a reason why agriculture will not be served as other sectors by federal subsidies and support. The third question is the question of trade. I wish we will regain our position in the global market. But Saturday I was listening to a program on the French public radio about Canadian lentils. The message was that Europe should stop to be dependent on Canadian lentils for all sorts of reasons. We are the largest producer in the world, so if you have huge markets that are starting to close? Because the perception of people is that borders will not reopen and should not reopen. Again, because of this idea of food sovereignty that is getting much traction everywhere, it could be a challenge for us. If you think the world will be the same, I think you will have very bad surprises in a few weeks.


NP: I want to ask you a question Cherie about perceptions toward the beef and cattle industry. As a result of this health crisis, do you think people will be reticent to be consuming meat products on such a high level as a result of this? We've heard about animal to human transmission, and while beef isn't at the forefront of this, do you think it will impact consumer behaviour and thoughts on that?


CBB: Well, I think similar to what was just said, I think what people are finding is that they are more comfortable eating more locally. From a local perspective, people trust the Canadian beef industry. We've proven ourselves through transparency, through the global round table sustainable beef in what we're doing through the restaurant chains. Being able to clearly demonstrate how we produce beef at every facet? That trust is starting to grow. As we advance into that, things like the global greenhouse gas emissions and questions that consumers now have, we're starting to show that as part of that transparency, we're doing a lot within the industry to help this situation and not be a negative impact. I think once we get through this, people's priorities are going to shift a little, and I think we're going to see a bit of gratitude hopefully because we felt like villains for so, so long now as agricultural producers. But people starting to understand where their food is coming from finally, and that's going to be a very positive thing I think that comes out of this.


NP: Yeah. If there's one thing that this health crisis and economic crisis has taught us collectively is that we are such an interconnected global society and there does seem to be this movement of buy local, support local. How are we ensuring that our businesses remain prosperous, and doors open throughout this pandemic, and what can we do to support our fellow neighbors as well in their own recovery and livelihood? I want to go back to some of the unique impacts to the market here in Alberta. What are we finding from a policy standpoint, from a supply chain management standpoint that are aspects or challenges that are particularly unique to here in Alberta?


GS: With the wheat farmers, we work very closely with Parrish and Heimbecker mills. They have two large flour mills, and also semolina mills to make pasta. Durum is made in the pasta to make spaghetti. We're staying in close contact with Robin Hood Flour and with Ellison Flour mills to make sure that they can continue to supply what we need here. Also to help understand with people, if they want to more of their products at home should be making the packaging a little different? I would like to use an example of cucumbers. If we go to more cucumbers in Canada, could we make them into pickles ourselves or do we still need to import from other countries? I think that there's ways that we can look at this in the future as Cherie said that's going to be different, we can maybe do more things at home and not rely so heavily on other countries. But we are such an export nation, I don't want to cut any ties with anybody because we need to still export a lot of our livestock and a lot of our grain products to other countries because they rely on this heavily for feeding their population. It is a challenge, I'll let the others answer.


CBB: It is a challenge, and I think domestically we have to start looking at our own regulations and ensuring that we're not inhibiting any of our businesses from being able to expand in the areas that we need in order to, again, feed domestically better and have that value added here. It's going to need some changes, because there's not a lot of confidence globally in investing in Canada right now because of some of the issues that have been going on prior to COVID. We need to regain that confidence, because if we know that we can't here in Alberta transport any of our products out safely to the coast where it needs to be exported? Then we're not going to improve anything here. We are export dependent, so therefore we need guarantees that are our companies and our businesses are going to be able to have complete transportation, not have any problems with transportation as well as the tax regulatory issues. It's something that has to be addressed, and if we're going to continue to add these taxes onto businesses? We're going to be in trouble. We won't be able to take advantage of that global trade like we should be as such a huge, agricultural producing country.


NP: What's the role of advocacy and raising awareness to those issues? P.G., can you comment on the role of the Simpson Centre in helping to advance and facilitate a dialogue around the policy landscape?


PGF: Yeah. Prefacing that by saying that we're never engaged in any form of advocacy because we are an academic institution. The most important things from our perspective at this moment? The first one is clearly to make a better case to explain what is the contribution of agriculture and agri-food to the economy of the province and of the country? When rebuilding the economy of the province, when people ask me, "When are we going back to normal?" I say, "Well, there is no normal to go back to." We will have to rebuild the economy of this province, and it's clear for me that agriculture and agri-food could be recognized as one of the, if not the backbone of this rebuilding of the economy. It's much less volatile than oil and gas, it's probably much more secure in the long term, and it's part of the DNA of our society. It is absolutely essential that we think along these lines, and one of the things that Simpson Centre can do is providing you with evidence of the importance of the sector, and the importance of the sector in the future. The second major issue is that we have to reconnect in people's mind, agriculture and food. Those sectors in Canada have been, for historical reasons, for financial reasons taken apart one of each other, and I think it's very important for people to understand better the relationship that exists between the two. One of my favorite quotes from Michael Pollan is the idea that you cannot have biodiversity in your plate if you don't have biodiversity in the fields. People have to understand that those two issues, your love of the environment and your love of nature that is protected and enriched is also dependent in the way we are actually managing our agri-food sector. Finally, and Cherie mentioned that earlier, the importance of people understanding. We haven't been discussing climate change of course in the last month, we won't be for the next two months, but at some point it will be back. Again, agriculture is playing such an important role especially in this country in helping, managing this question. That again, it will be a very important contribution I think of the centre. Of showing that there is a solution for the economy, there is a solution for climate change and there is of course a solution for healthy, unhealthy populace with food and feeding our people.


GS: Could I add one thing into this discussion now?


NP: Absolutely.


GS: In Southern Alberta, we have the largest irrigation system in Canada, so it's a great opportunity for us in Alberta to maybe look at ways we could change things. Because a livestock feed lot is in the Lethbridge area, Southern Alberta. The potato plants are growing, and now they're talking about cutting back on acres of potatoes being seeded this spring, because they're concerned about being able to ship the potatoes overseas. But I think that in this irrigation belt, it's an opportunity for us to review what some of our policies could be or what some of our educational aspects could be into the future of working with the government. The Alberta government and the federal government work on what we have the opportunity to say. I'm thinking with the Simpson Centre, this is a real opportunity to communicate with the politicians on both levels and just say, "Look, in your province of Alberta, we have these opportunities. What can we do to make this work?" I would use one example is that durum pasta plant to make spaghetti? There's not one in Canada, it's all imported from other countries. We don't need to build a major one to compete with Italy, but it could we build a small one just to help feed Canada more locally? I think that there's a lot of opportunities and I believe that the province of Alberta is well situated to help move some of this forward.


PGF: If Quebec has cheap energy because they have access to cheaper energy is able to start thinking about growing 80 per cent of their fruits and vegetables themselves? There is another province in Canada that has access to cheap energy, and could become the giant in that, and it's Alberta. It's very clear, but we have to think differently.


NP: Final thoughts. For Calgarians and those in Alberta that are listening to this podcast right now and wondering what can they do to help support the agriculture and agri-foods industry here in our province? What words of advice do you have for them?


GS: I just think that we have a real opportunity here to educate people. I've been working with local schools, trying to teach them about agriculture. Canada's grows their food very safely and very environmentally sustainable. We have a very good opportunity just to let people know that we are doing what we can here. Sure, things are going to have to change with COVID-19, but I think that we have a real opportunity here just to communicate. If the urban people can buy from the local restaurants, or maybe look at buying more products that are made in Canada? I really love that Dempster's commercial on TV when they show a loaf of bread, and a combine combining the wheat. It just said, "Made by Canada." It doesn't say "Made in Canada." Made by Canada, what that means is that the wheat was grown here, the wheat was processed here and the loaf of bread was made here. No other ingredients came from outside of Canada. Maybe there's opportunities that we'd have to move forward and just change our thought patterns a little.


CBB: I would even go one step further and say, we need to start explaining to our citizens that Alberta and Canada alike, we need their support because policy is driven by popularity and there's no doubt about it. If we could get their support in talking with politicians, and that's why I'm so excited about the Centre, because of the ability to disseminate information that's been difficult for us as an industry to be able to disseminate before. It just helps build confidence within our politicians that they can listen to industry, because they have the support of the public behind us, that we as industry have the support of the public.


PGF: As we have said during that podcast: eat local, that's important, and buy quality over quantity. Most of the time you will help by buying Canadian. Finally, maybe adopt a farmer, that might be an idea.


NP: Those are all great suggestions, and it's been a fascinating conversation. It would be interesting to check back in in a few months, to see how we have evolved or worked our way through this global health crisis, and what that means for this industry collectively moving forward. That would be a welcome version of 2.0 of our discussion I think.


CH: Thanks to Cherie, Gary and P.G. for sitting down to talk with us today. And thanks to all of you for listening. You can subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple, Google, or Spotify. You can also find episodes and other community resources including webinars and expert advice at Ideas for future episodes can be emailed to COVIDcast is a production of the University of Calgary. Thanks for listening.


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