As much as it is a time of crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is also a time for the agri-food sector to explore new opportunities, said an industry expert.
This moment in history hasn’t simply been “problem after problem after problem,” said Marty Seymour, director of industry relations at Farm Credit Canada in Regina.
The pandemic has “brought food to the forefront of people’s minds, second only to health, so if we now have agriculture and food on the top of mind of legislators and consumers, this is our time to demonstrate it. I think ag is part of the country’s formula for an economic recovery, and when we talk about the role of ag and food in that economic recovery, I think the better it is for our industry.”
Seymour spoke during the recent Farm Forum Event conference as part of a presentation called What COVID Taught Me About Canadian Ag. The event was held online due to the pandemic.
“Without a doubt, the last six months have clearly been the most unique time in Canadian history and in the history of the world as we dealt with COVID and a pandemic,” he said. It has affected everyone from employees at Canadian meat packing plants to temporary foreign workers relied on by the horticulture industry, he said.
But it also helped bring the agriculture industry together “for the first time that I’ve seen,” said Seymour, pointing to how the sector can be divided over things such as genetically modified organisms and organic farming.
The pandemic saw groups such as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture team up with the cattle and pork industries to get federal help that included personal protective equipment for meat packers, he said. Ottawa announced an emergency aid package of $252 million on May 5 for farmers and food processors.
“I think all things considered, we can be really proud of the Canadian processing industry for getting us through those early days of COVID and finding some stability in the food system,” said Seymour.
But outbreaks caused closures and slowdowns at beef processing plants across Canada, “and we realized we had a consolidation of the packing industry into a few players in the beef industry,” he said. The pandemic also brought home “how integrated the hog industry was because now we had a backup of 100,000 hogs in a couple of weeks.”
“I think it opens the door for a conversation about a national automation strategy, not automation to put people out of work, but automation that we can use in food processing that starts to manage risk — the risk that if people couldn’t come to work, the risk in terms of productivity, those kinds of things — but do it through the lens of automation and tech adoption.”
COVID-19 has changed assumptions about the reliability of the supply of labour, said Seymour in an interview. If you’re a food processor “and your new risk is the show-up rates for your staff, or getting enough staff, it makes the return on investment for automation look better,” he said.
Such work is also highly repetitive, making it easier to create things such as computer algorithms, “so I think that’s the lowest-hanging fruit in the food system,” he said. It will likely be much more challenging to introduce automation into food production, such as gathering fruits and vegetables for horticulture in provinces such as Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, he said.
Seymour told the conference the pandemic has also changed consumer behaviour, pointing to a “huge leap forward in people’s willingness to shop online on anything from perishable foods to standard household items.” It has given the agri-food industry the lift it needs to move toward online shopping, he said.
“It’s not really a rural Canadian conversation, but more of an urban conversation,” he said. “But the longer COVID exists, and that we have that interrupted behaviour, the more likely these things become habits.”
Early in the pandemic, consumption at restaurants not only plummeted due to closures or restrictions in service, many people forced to work from home only went out for things such as drive-through burgers, said Seymour. The agri-food sector faced a sudden drop in demand for products ranging from craft beer to potatoes in the form of french fries, he said.
As Canadians deal with the second wave of COVID-19, “what does bacon consumption look like if we move away from eating out again — the french fry business, the chicken wing industry? How do those groups retool themselves to stay relevant?”
Seymour said he was “very interested in transportation, and early on when all the planes and international travel stopped, I didn’t appreciate how many parts or how many things in our supply chain come from outside of Canada.”
As a result, the pandemic is helping promote a big shift around buy local.
“There’s an opportunity inside that for what I call the boutique food manufacturers, those mid-sized people that are ready to scale up who need a little bit more local support.
“I think we’ve been doing this in agriculture since the dawn of time where somebody has a niche opportunity and starts to market it, but I think Canadian consumers are finally ready … I think you’ll just see more opportunities to create branded items, a Canadian-only kind of conversation.”