I’m sure that if I tried to explain to my former, pre-COVID-19, self how much life has changed in only a couple of months, I would have been incredulous.
Alongside the health and financial challenges, this pandemic has also highlighted some of the holes in many of our systems, health and otherwise. Personally, I have become more aware of (and concerned about) our local food security.
One of the earliest concerns highlighted by our media was a sudden lack of toilet paper. Grocery store shelves were cleaned dry of any toilet paper products. It turns out that this was more of a supply chain issue — there was some difficulty moving goods through the various steps needed to get to our grocery store shelves.
The unstable food supply chain
It wasn’t long before supply chain issues for food also began to surface. Flour and sugar were among the casualties. Our reliance on imported goods left many holes as borders closed and businesses shut down.
Farmers had to dump huge amounts of milk down the drain despite soaring demands at grocery stores. While our supply management system ensures our local access to milk, the supply chain failed when demand suddenly shifted from wholesale to individual demand.
So how unstable is our food security and is there more we should do about it? Our support of local farmers and food processors is very weak. We have few effective policies to ensure the security of those systems and the people who grow our food. In fact, some of the legislation around food works against it.
For example, meat is processed at such large (and distant) plants that it can be nearly impossible for some of the smaller growers to slaughter meat. Smaller, local abattoirs can inject more security into the system so that any one plant closing wouldn’t cause a breakdown of the entire system.
Paying our local growers fairly
Further aggravating the situation is that our farmers and food processors are not adequately paid for their products.
Canada’s food is the cheapest among Western society but that simply means that others along the chain pay its true value. If we don’t fairly and appropriately value our food then we end up with less stable food systems that become more susceptible to failure.
Niagara had a thriving canning industry that has been shipped overseas to keep the cost of the product as low as possible. Large grocery store chains push food prices down, forcing farmers to trim costs and limit risks as much as possible.
We need to support local farmers
Building and supporting local food growers and processors would go a long way to increasing our food security, particularly as climate breakdown increasingly makes farming more challenging. We now have a perfect storm for ever-increasing food insecurity in Canada.
Mandatory local food buying policies for public institutions would provide more stability and support to our farmers. Support for farmers would ensure that during emergencies, we are more likely to have an adequate food supply when we need it.
We are also losing farm acreage at an alarming rate and many of those are small farmers, which is another consequence of inadequate support. Only a small portion of our soil is actually used for farming, the rest is covered by concrete.
Teaching our children about food
We should think about how children are learning about food — in Quebec, they restrict advertising to young children, whereas in Ontario children are bombarded by unhealthy ‘food’ ads targeted directly to them.
Instead, let’s build more appreciation and understanding of our food systems into our education, create more agricultural schools and community gardens across Canada.
The future of food security
I’m hoping that if there are any positive outcomes from all of this COVID-19 devastation, it’s that we reconsider our priorities — specifically our food security. We need to build a system that ensures as much self-sufficiency as possible, one in which we value farmers and our food and the land it’s grown on.
You can start by supporting local farmers by by-passing grocery store chains with other sources that pay more equitably for food. Community-supported agriculture and farmer’s markets are great places to start.