Will the wild changes in the grocery, food and farming systems survive the pandemic?

What will create lasting changes and what is transitory?

As slaughter plants in Canada and the United States reduce line speeds, shifts or effect temporary closures to deal with COVID-19 concerns, analysts say supplies are likely to be affected. | File photo

The food, farming and grocery sectors have been shocked by the coronavirus crisis.

Packing plants have been temporarily shuttered, creating crises on hog farms and cattle feedlots that can’t move animals they have no space for. Food products that everybody has taken for granted for decades, such as flour and yeast, have become suddenly scarce, unobtainable or rationed by grocery stores. Those stores are able to boost prices and restrict access, while racking up great profits, as consumers stock pantries due to fears of food shortages. Grocery delivery services, previously a tiny part of the grocery system, have suddenly exploded in popularity, with chains like SaveOn Foods and app-based services like Instacart becoming backlogged with orders as consumers search for ways to stay safe from the virus and still obtain food.

How many of these changes will survive the pandemic? A lot of people are trying to guess the right answer, but there’s no way we’ll know until we’re there, in the future, looking at the new world post-COVID-19. I’m guessing that it will all depend on how long the disruptions and crisis lasts. The shorter the crisis, the less that will change and the more of today’s changes that will swing back to the old ways of doing things. The longer the crisis, the more new habits will be laid down and become truly habitual.

“The research suggests that once consumers, once households start buying groceries online, it’s pretty sticky,” farm and food marketing and logistics consultant Brenda Tjaden told me recently. “They don’t go back.”

We’ll see about that. Lots of us are trying those delivery services now, but some including me have mostly gone back to driving to the grocery store to distancingly do my family’s shopping. So far we’re less than two months into the full force of this crisis and lots is changing every day.

Tjaden is involved with a quickly developing part of the farming, food and grocery nexus that has drawn a lot of attention recently: direct farm sales to the consumer. This has been a tiny fringe to the bulk of crop and livestock production on the Prairies and across Canada until now, and still is, but the growing trend has been highlighted as a way of providing local, healthy food to urban consumers that have few connections to farmers. It is also promoted as a way of providing farmers with a market that isn’t based on bulk commodity production economics, and as a way of channeling more of the consumer’s food dollar to the farm and away from “the middle man” and the “supply chain.”

“These are very non-conventional tactics that these farms used,” said Tjaden, who is presently helping some work together to be able to provide “aggregated food boxes” that contain products from a number of farms, rather than forcing consumers to be satisfied with a narrow range of products from one farm, or to deal with multiple farms to get vegetables, grain products and meat.

It’s an interesting approach. Some farmers I’ve spoken to in the last years are committed to controlling everything themselves and forming a direct, personal bond with their consumers. That’s what they’re selling. Others are experimenting with various production and marketing strategies, including direct, through farmers’ markets and as a sideline to bulk production of crops or livestock. It’s a quickly-evolving form of food production and distribution that we haven’t seen much of in recent decades. How much room is there for farmers to embrace the opportunity? That’s a guess right now.

(Here are two stories I wrote about the direct-to-consumer phenomenon in the past year: Direct sales heat-up for farmers; Northern Ontario farm serves local market.)

What happens to our meatpacking industry? It clearly has fundamental design flaws when faced with an infectious disease like COVID-19. Processing plants packed with hundreds or thousands of workers are going to have a tough time keeping this virus out until there’s a vaccine. That could be up to 18 months away. Between now and then there could be repeated shutdowns and re-openings, strangling meat production and the ability of farmers to move their animals. Or the packers could quickly develop biosafety protocols that largely eliminate the threat of the disease. It’s too early to know. I’m guessing that some packers will find ways to greatly reduce the risk of future outbreaks, but that the risk will hamper the industry getting back to anything like normal production. The longer the crisis goes on, the more pressure there will be to radically overhaul the industry once it’s done. Old plants from one or two generations ago, like both of Alberta’s giant beef plants, are unlikely to come out of this crisis and go back to “normal.” The desire for greater automation, better design and fewer human workers could cause some major rebuilding or new plants built. If the crisis ends soon, some operators of old facilities could decide to go back to normal, keep running their plants  without pouring in new capital, and hope another pandemic doesn’t arrive any time soon.

Regardless, managing a slaughter plant will be different from now on. “The scope of how they manage risk will have to change after COVID,” said Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University food industry analyst who runs the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

Livestock producers have seen in shocking detail what happens when the normal marketing system breaks down. However you have hedged your production through derivatives, cash contracts, relationships and other arrangements doesn’t matter much if animals physically can’t be moved. How will farmers react to that reality? Again, I’m sure it depends upon how long this present crisis lasts. If it’s a temporary creature of a couple of months, perhaps not much. But if this lasts more than a year, I would expect profound changes. What would those be? Who knows?

(In last week’s paper I wrote about the perennial problem for farmers of having to invest so much up-front in crops, livestock, machinery and facilities for markets that won’t be clear for months: Farmers put faith in future demand for commodities.)

There has been a lot of research into habit-formation in the last few years. Popular books have been released explaining the psychology of habit-following and habit-breaking, including Atomic Habits by James Clear. This pandemic is going to give us a chance to examine how many habits of individuals, families, industries and nations is affected by a major change in our lives. A key conclusion of most of the habit-forming research is that the longer a new behaviour is practiced, or an existing one disrupted, the more likely a new habit will develop. We don’t know how long this crisis will last, but the longer it does, the more likely we are to see permanent changes in farming and food.





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