Shippers reassure nervous buyers

Canada’s grain customers are getting antsy about food security, say industry officials.

“What we have seen is communication from some of our more important trading partners that are looking for certainty of supply into the future,” said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association.

There has been contact at the trade association and government-to-government levels seeking assurance that COVID-19 is not going to disrupt the grain trade and leave their citizens hungry.

“They are saying, ‘we buy a lot from Canada. We don’t know how things are going to unfold but we need to know that Canada is still going to keep its grain supply chain open to us so we can feed our people,’ ” said Sobkowich.

Bloomberg is reporting that Kazakhstan, which is one of the world’s leading shippers of wheat flour, has banned exports of the product.

Meanwhile, Reuters is reporting that Russia is contemplating a quota on grain exports for the April through June period. The proposed seven million tonne quota would include wheat, corn, barley and rye.

Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada, has been receiving similar calls as Sobkowich.

“We do have customers that are asking us for assurances that we’re going to keep exporting grain and we are able to supply those assurances,” he said.

That’s because companies in the supply chain are taking the right measures to ensure they can continue to operate even if COVID-19 affects their businesses.

And the federal government is providing the co-ordination and communication necessary to identify and deal with any issues before they become a big problem, said Dahl.

Unfortunately, there are discouraging signs that some customers might be contemplating using COVID-19 as yet one more protectionist tool.

“I am concerned that there are countries that were already looking at restricting trade that will take advantage of a pandemic for protectionist reasons and not because of health and safety,” said Dahl.

He refused to elaborate on the comment other than to dispel the notion that customers were suggesting that COVID-19 could be transmitted through food shipments. He said that is not the case.

“It’s an opportunity to put up other trade barriers,” said Dahl.

Sobkowich said Canada’s ability to continue servicing customers hinges on the transportation system and for the grain companies he represents that means relying on the two national railways to continue to perform.

“So far, so good,” he said.

“We’ve been moving a lot of grain in the month of March by rail.”

However, there were 45 vessels waiting to be loaded at the West Coast as of week 33, which is much higher than the same time last year.

And there are mounting concerns about a shortage of shipping containers caused by the reduction in vessels arriving from Asia loaded with consumer goods. That is causing a severe backlog at West Coast transloading facilities.

Farmers rely on the trucking industry to get their product from the farm to the elevator and for receiving fertilizer and other crop inputs from retailers.

Marco Beghetto, vice-president of communications with the Canadian Trucking Alliance, said there have been some COVID-19 related issues but most of those are now in the rearview mirror.

The industry had to iron out some wrinkles related to the cross-border movement of goods after the United States and Canada agreed to restrict non-essential traffic.

Trucking of essential items such as food, fuel and live-saving medicines was supposed to be exempt from the new security measures but initially, some drivers, especially temporary foreign workers, had problems crossing the border.

That issue appears to have been sorted out, said Beghetto.

He noted that there had been a shortage of truckers prior to the COVID-19 outbreak but he has “all the confidence” that farmers will be receiving crop inputs and shipping out grain as needed due to a reshuffling of drivers.

“Manufacturers are closing, auto parts aren’t moving, so there are obviously drivers that can be shifted to lanes that do require immediate attention,” said Beghetto.

Those lanes include the agri-food sector.

One of the biggest lingering concerns for truckers are closed rest stops and restaurants. There have also been some shipping/receiving companies that are refusing access to washroom facilities.

Beghetto said he understands the need for businesses to restrict traffic in their establishments but asked companies to consider erecting a portable toilet outside their buildings or dedicating one washroom near the entrance of their facilities that can be used by visitors.

“(Truckers) need to be treated properly. They need to be treated humanely. If not, I think the market will have its own natural temper tantrum and your freight may be the casualty of that,” he warned. “Drivers simply aren’t going to tolerate being treated disrespectfully.”

The association has launched the Twitter hashtag #thankatrucker to recognize the important role drivers play in keeping store shelves stocked during a time of crisis.

Beghetto encouraged people to consider providing food or coffee to a truck driver who may not have been able to make the usual pitstop at a restaurant.

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