By Jensen, Randy on May 20, 2020.
The Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs hosted a special online presentation Tuesday with Sylvain Charlebois, on food production as an essential service, while discussing whether governments are providing farmers with adequate aid during COVID-19.
Charlebois is a researcher in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety. He has written four books and over 500 peer-reviewed and scientific articles. During his presentation, Charlebois touched on many ways the agriculture and food processing industries have been affected and ways for the government to improve their support, starting with the experience of currently buying food.
“The food industry has been slaughtered by COVID-19 with the measures we had to take to keep everyone safe,” says Charlebois. “What we are seeing in grocery stores has a large effect on the supply chain. Before 18 per cent did not want to be in grocery stores and now 50 per cent are avoiding all together. This is because it is a duty to go grocery shopping. You are disciplined, you have to follow arrows, follow directions, you pay through glass and the experience now is quite unpleasant.”
Although drawing customers out of the store was encouraged by governments to stop the spread of the pandemic, operations of stores and producers’ costs have increased, which inflates the prices for food, leaving many who are unemployed crunching numbers even harder.
“The economics have changed. To operate a store, the cost has gone up about seven per cent because wages increased and measures they have to take cost more,” says Charlebois. “The food inflation rate right now is roughly four per cent, which might not seem like a lot but it can add up. Prices were going up before COVID, especially on meat, but COVID has really invited us to think about food altogether.”
Charlebois says the ecommerce method was adopted by many European countries a few years back, but was avoided by many communities in Canada. As buying directly through the producer online has become more popular over the last nine weeks in Canada, he says the possibility for not needing the middle-man grocery stores could be the way of the future.
When the federal government announced its $250-million support plan for the agriculture industry, many were underwhelmed by the support as it focused on processing, backlogs and employee safety, but Charlebois says with the current situation, collectively we have to look differently at the economy.
“I felt like the governments over all have done their best to deal with this issue, and everyone going in knew it wasn’t going to be perfect. They came in with some helpful mobility, but we have reached a point now that we have to think differently about the economy,” says Charlebois.
One way of investing in local products is finding alternatives to preserving and reusing wasted products such as milk and meat.
“The ethics of food production are being questioned,” says Charlebois. “We have heard of milk dumping, food waste, euthanized animals. I can tell you the way I see it, I can see how C-19 is serving strong case studies for vegans. You can see cracks in the supply chain and we need to address those cracks because it makes farmers and the supply chain look bad, and the farmers don’t deserve that attention, so that is one thing that needs to change. We just dumped over 50 million litres of milk. We could have generated energy with that milk or made vodka, or preserved it for a year. These are all things that do exist, but you need a strategy and if you don’t have one, farmers pay for that.”
Charlebois says he hopes governments across the country will work together to improve the industry and capitalize on their products.
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