Food system shows flexibility: prof

For a couple months, Canada’s food supply system was front page news.

At grocery stores, flour and toilet paper ran out. Some beef and pork plants shut down as hundreds or thousands of workers got sick with COVID-19.

Going to the grocery store became a mission seemingly fraught with danger.

Hoarding of food and fear of future shortages became rife across the country and continent.

Then the fear began abating after people stocked up, grocery store shelves were filled again, and the food system collapse that many feared didn’t happen.

It’s an industry strength University of Guelph food industry expert Simon Somogyi isn’t surprised to see, but relieved to have seen proven true.

“It’s not broken,” said Somogyi in an interview.

“It’s a system that is flexible in its design. It has to be because we have to get food onto our plates.”

There were widespread fears of system breakdown during the peak of the food system crisis as packing plants shut down with mass COVID-19 outbreaks, some basic food products disappeared and farm labourers couldn’t get into the country.

Some called for a fundamental restructuring of the food system, with smaller packing plants replacing today’s giants and consumers switching to local and regional food supplies rather than relying upon imported food.

Today, just weeks after the furore, it’s hard to find stories in newspapers or on radio or TV about the food supply. Things are mostly back to normal and it’s just not a story any longer.

Somogyi thinks Canada is more likely to see “small tweaks” to the system rather than a comprehensive restructuring.

“It’s already a system that’s pretty adaptive,” said Somogyi.

“They all quickly, rapidly adapted.”

While food production, processing, transportation and retailing is an old industry, it is much more spry than most Canadians believed, Somogyi said. The spryness is partly due to the nature of food, which is perishable, comes in variable shapes and sizes, needs careful management and has supplies coming from thousands of sources.

COVID-19 was a shock, but the food system has often had to quickly react to sudden disruptions.

“Wholesalers, retailers, processors — they’re always having to adapt,” said Somogyi.

But even if food supply fears have dropped out of the news for now, the two-month shock that hit in mid-March has probably raised awareness of the Canadian food system, and mostly in a good way, Somogyi said.

“Up until COVID, the average Canadian understood retailing…. They had a reasonable idea about what farming is. But (they understood) nothing about the business between,” he said.

Early hopes from some that jobs in processing and on-farm production could be given to recently laid-off urban workers were mostly dashed when it became clear that farm and food production jobs aren’t unskilled work anybody can do, but that realization sends a good message to Canadians, especially about foreign workers.

“Those jobs require a lot of specific skills. We don’t just import a lot of people from, say, Central America and the Caribbean to work on farms because they are cheap,” said Somogyi.

“It’s because they know how to plant, harvest, they understand food safety, they understand food market specification issues. They’re definitely not low-skilled labour.”

Consumers are probably also beginning to realize the food system is a complex, expensive system that has multiple moving parts.

“That (usually) gets lost a bit,” said Somogyi.

For the food system to work, it has to have abundant, skilled labour, a large and complex logistical system, and a vast system of expensive refrigeration that operates coast to coast, and between fixed locations.

“It’s really shed a light on how the food they get ends up on their plate,” said Somogyi.

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