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OPINION | Growing resilience: What could a secure food system look like?

COVID-19 is emptying shelves, forcing dairy farmers to dump milk, shutting down meat packing plants and leaving many of us worried about food shortages. The pandemic shows food security concerns are real.

'When we lose all control of our food, then we really have a problem.'

The Cargill beef plant in High River, Alta. Months before it became the site of North America's largest COVID-19 outbreak, people were warning about the insecurity of Canada’s food system. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from freelance writer Ryan Stuart.

(CBC)

Months before the Cargill meat processing plant near High River recorded what was at one time North America's largest COVID-19 outbreak, before gaps started appearing on grocery store shelves, and even before doctors identified the novel coronavirus, Kristine Kowalchuk started writing a letter warning politicians about the insecurity of Canada's food system.

The University of Alberta English department adjunct professor, whose research and writing focus on food and the environment, knew the majority of farmers were struggling, while a small number of multinational companies made handsome profits.

She knew farming in this country relied on tens of thousands of migrant workers — and open borders. She knew we mostly grew commodities on an industrial scale to feed animals, make biofuels, or for export. And she also knew the majority of the fruits and vegetables in Canadian grocery stores came from outside of the country.

"The whole food system is precarious," she says. "It's very insecure."

Kowalchuk was not alone in her worries. More than 150 individuals and groups — academics, farmers, nutritionists, environmentalists and doctors * — signed the letter before she sent it to the Prime Minister and the ministers of agriculture and environment in April.

It called for "transformative change" to the entire food system. 

Food security concerns real

It would have sounded radical, except that COVID-19 is emptying shelves, forcing dairy farmers to dump milk, shutting down meat packing plants and leaving many of us worried about food shortages. The pandemic shows food security concerns are real.

Making our food system safer and more secure begins in the field and will depend on technology.

But first, some good news.

"We are not going to starve," reassures Ellen Goddard, an agriculture economist from the University of Alberta.

"We might have short-term availability issues of specific products, but we will find ways to fill the gap."

Goddard says our current food system was born out of the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1996.

The Cargill parking lot sits empty in this file photo, after the company announced a temporary shut down of its beef plant near High River, Alta. Two Alberta plants process about 70 per cent of Canada's beef. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Access to global markets allowed national food processing companies to expand out of their home countries and spread across the globe. They gobbled up small players, until five companies controlled 90 per cent of the global grain trade, four multinationals made 60 per cent of agriculture chemicals, and two Alberta plants processed about 70 per cent of Canada's beef.

Size brought efficiencies that encouraged industrial-scale farming, increased productivity, reduced food prices and created huge export markets. Canadian farmers now sell 50 per cent of their beef and 70 per cent of their pork overseas.

Cumbersome and inflexible

This bigger-is-better model repeats itself throughout the food system, from shipping to grocery store chains. Usually it works. But when things go wrong, it's too cumbersome and inflexible to respond rapidly.

So when all the restaurants closed, their industrial-sized suppliers couldn't find new customers fast enough and veggies rotted in the field.

Similarly, big grocery struggles to buy from small town abattoirs.

"The logistics of Loblaws or Sobeys trying to collect beef from dozens of small processing plants spread across the country and get it to stores when they need it, is kind of mind boggling," Goddard says.

But while a lot of agriculture thinkers say the biggest threat to food security is consolidation, it's just as much the operating conditions of the big plants.

Adopting more automation and other technology is the best way to prevent shutdowns and keep grocery stores stocked. For instance, mechanizing more of the meat processing assembly line could make social distancing easier — preventing the spread of diseases and improving productivity at the same time.

COVID-19 is emptying shelves, forcing dairy farmers to dump milk, and leaving veggies to rot in the field. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Historically, agriculture and food processing have been slow to adopt technology. That's beginning to change.

Investment in agri-tech grew 370 per cent between 2013 and 2019, according to AgFunder, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Major tech companies and investors, including Google, Amazon and SoftBank, are backing innovations in everything from seeds to services.

Digitizing distribution

It will all help, but the key to keeping fridges stocked, especially as the global population grows, is digitizing the food distribution system, says Erik Westblom, the co-founder of Provision Analytics.

The Calgary-based agriculture-focused tech firm has its cursor hovering over food waste.

More than a third of what's grown and produced in Canada ends up in the trash.

Provision's software helps farmers and processors track all their inputs and outputs. A strawberry farmer can trace fruit from the field through delivery, spotting problems that are invisible on a spreadsheet.

With 10 strawberry farmers using the platform, Provision can combine data to help identify trends and further improve the supply chain.

"It's a risk mitigation engine," Westblom says. "Traceability will make the food system safer."

According to Ian Mosby, resilient food security needs to come from the soil, not the internet. He and two co-authors have just published the book Uncertain Harvest, about the global food security crisis.

"Technology will play a role, but I think fixing food security requires a major intervention at the level of public policy," he says.

According to Ian Mosby, rather than subsidizing big farming with more than $6 billion every year, the federal and provincial governments should encourage more small, local farms. (Tory Gillis/CBC)

Modern, industrial farming pollutes the water with fertilizers and pesticides and degrades the soil.

Farm costs — land, machinery, seeds, fertilizers, labour — keep going up, while the commodity prices have changed little in 40 years. That's a big reason why more than two-thirds of an average family farm's income came from off-farm work in 2013. 

Meanwhile, small, diverse farms, practicing more traditional farming methods are doing well.

Rather than subsidizing big farming with more than $6 billion every year, the federal and provincial governments should encourage more small, local farms.

Here too technology can help and the pandemic is accelerating adoption.

In Kenya, Twiga Foods was connecting 15,000 small farmers with 5,000 retailers. The arrival of COVID-19 prompted the company to partner with an e-commerce platform to deliver the produce directly to consumers.

Closer to home, the virus fast-tracked a plan by the B.C. Association of Farmers' Markets to open virtual markets. More than 60 markets across the province now have an online store, in addition to the physical market. 

The coronavirus fast-tracked a plan by the B.C. Association of Farmers' Markets to open virtual markets. Technology can help improve our food supply system and the pandemic is accelerating adoption. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

"Going online has all kinds of upside," says Heather O'Hara, the executive director of the association. 

For vendors, pre-selling some of their product helps them plan for market day and provides sales data they didn't have before. It keeps the markets relevant in an increasingly e-commerce-dominated shopping place. And it helps build a more secure food system by providing another way for shoppers to connect with local foods.

"If we do not buy from local farmers and food processors, we won't have a local food system, we deplete our entire food growing infrastructure and we become entirely reliant on food systems from elsewhere," says O'Hara.

"When we lose all control of our food, then we really have a problem."


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Kristine Kowalchuk's letter to the prime minister was signed by the National Farmer’s Union. The NFU didn't sign the letter, but their research was used in its creation.
    May 21, 2020 11:55 AM MT

About the Author

As a full-time freelance writer, Ryan Stuart has covered everything from Greenland’s emergence as the next adventure tourism destination to why humans love looking at fire. His work regularly appears in Men’s Journal and Outside and he’s a contributing editor to Explore and Ski Canada Magazine.

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