Food system withstood pandemic challenge

Report credits much of the success to keeping Canada-U.S. border open, which helped companies keep goods flowing

After a year of the pandemic, the ability of Canada’s food system to continue to function while providing generally affordable food has been proven, observed two agricultural economists.

In the opener to a special edition of the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, James Deaton of the University of Guelph and Brady J. Deaton of the University of Missouri note that “the evidence from price data does not indicate a failure in the capacity of the Canadian food system to adapt to COVID-19. Indeed, as we predicted, rapid upswings in the general price of food appear to have been avoided.”

In March 2020, millions of consumers worrying about food shortages rushed to grocery stores to fill up on foods and staple goods, like toilet paper and flour.

Mainstream media was filled with stories about empty grocery store shelves, hoarding and fears of shortages and hunger.

Yet outside specific product categories, most products remained stocked, stores remained open and prices did not sharply rise.

Deaton and Deaton say, in the March 24 article, entitled Food Security and Canada’s Agricultural System Challenged by COVID-19: One Year Later, that Canada’s food system showed itself up to the challenge.

“In our opinion, this is testimony to the resiliency of our food system, which made considerable adjustments…. Importantly, these adjustments are the results of adaptations that occur both within the market system and by government action. Coupled together, these actions are central to our food system.”

Much of the success came from keeping open the Canada-United States border, which helped companies to keep goods flowing.

“Hence, governments play an active role in expanding the capacity of our private sector to seek out opportunities that advantage both their companies and their consumers,” says the paper, which is available online.

Most of the special issue, which re-examines how COVID-19 is affecting the Canadian agriculture and food systems, has not yet been published.

“This important relationship between government, institutions, and the market has been a central theme in economics since the time of Adam Smith.”

In March 2020, the journal published a special edition that gave many economists a chance to lay out the issues and make predictions about what COVID-19 might mean for Canada’s food system and for Canadian food security. Unlike much of the public and some in industry, the economists were generally sanguine, expecting only sporadic shortages, no great rise in prices and limited food security issues.

Those expectations have been largely borne out, but that success came from what appears to be the pre-existing robustness and flexibility of Canada’s food system pre-pandemic.

Border arrangements and global trading systems familiar with disruptions were able to adjust to most of the COVID-19 impacts.

Having some food production facilities able to operate as essential services while many other industries faced facility shutdowns helped avert shortages of meat and other products.

However, that doesn’t mean that food insecurity didn’t rise in Canada. By one measure, the number of Canadians experiencing food insecurity rose by about 40 percent, from 10.5 percent to 14.6 percent of the population.

Their challenges, though, mostly came from an inability to pay for food, rather than a lack of access to good or generally affordable food.

That was often due to the wave of layoffs and the surge of unemployment that followed the onset of COVID-19. With no paycheques, affording food became difficult for many.

The federal government moved quickly to extend massive unemployment benefits, which mitigated many people’s challenges.

Food insecurity existed in the first year of the pandemic and remains, and will almost certainly exist post-pandemic, but that won’t be due to the lack of good food, the authors argue.They hope those challenges can be addressed and some recent international trends don’t create new threats.

“Our review of the last year suggests that the relative effectiveness of our food system’s response to COVID-19 did not eliminate the threat of COVID-19 to food security,” they say.

“We fear that some potential policy responses, for example protectionism and an orientation away from the international competitiveness of the food system, which supports jobs and low food prices, potentially aggravates efforts to advance key drivers of the food supply system’s success and its capacity to contribute to efforts to improve food security in Canada through low food prices and economic growth.”

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