By Mark Nonkes
In the agriculture and food industry, leading researchers are making predictions of what we can expect to see and what might be in store for the future for our food supply, after COVID-19 lock-down measures end. Three University of Guelph professors who have expertise in various areas of the food system predict what lessons might be learned from COVID-19 and what the agricultural sector might expect in the future. We’ve compiled a list of seven of their ideas, and, in some cases, spoke with local people involved in growing and marketing our food to see if academic thought matched practical experience.
The manufacturing of food products will change. In the last few months, slaughterhouses in Alberta and British Columbia have reported COVID-19 outbreaks among staff, forcing plants to close. On a smaller scale, in Ontario greenhouses growing vegetables, like one in Chatham where more than 50 employees were infected with COVID-19, operations too were halted.
Inside these plants, where food is processed and packaged, workers pass items to one another, exposing themselves to the risk of COVID-19.
To combat the potential spread, Dr. Dana McCauley, a former chef and food entrepreneur who now works at the University of Guelph, says adjustments will be made in the short term by setting up “critical control points in a manufacturing factory setting because, where all of a sudden where gloves and a hair net were okay, I think now we’re going to be seeing a lot more face coverings and a lot more rigorous protocols around food safety.”
Looking further ahead, McCauley states that human contamination may be quashed as food manufacturers move to more robotic methods of processing and packaging food.
Livestock will not get to the market quickly. Dr. Mike Von Massow, a professor in the department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph, warns that rolling closures of meat processing plants, due to COVID-19 outbreaks, means farmers with livestock will have to hold onto their animals for longer.
“Animal feeding will have to be slowed and farmers may have to be patient as they wait to sell things like beef or pork,” says Von Massow, who researches food waste and the food system.
This is something Keith Currie, a Collingwood area farmer and the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), knows personally. Since COVID-19 closed businesses across the country, he’s heard from numerous farmers who are struggling to get their livestock to market.
“The time frame to hold back once market weight is reached is very short due to the nature of the animal,” Currie says. “Eventually the farm business will have to make a decision on what to do with the animals. De-population is not what anyone wants but it may be the only option. And while beef producers may be in a better position to hold animals back longer, they too face the prospect of no income because cattle can’t get processed while increased feed costs are incurred.”
After the May 5 federal government’s announcement of a $252 million financial package for the Canadian beef and pork producers and the food processing sector, the OFA expressed thanks but reminded government that they had joined agricultural organizations from across the country to request $2.6 billion in federal government support for the agri-food industry.
“Significant pressures remain for livestock farmers across the province,” states Currie. “It’s a good starting point for the industry, but we know many commodities in Ontario are facing unprecedented and difficult situations.”
Food shortages are unlikely. Despite the challenges of getting livestock to market, food shortages at grocery stores are unlikely for staple products.
Von Massow states that despite the challenges of some shortages of food products, “those were demand-based shortages and not supply-based shortages.”
The food system is catching up, Von Massow says.
“The irony in the time of shortages was we also heard of some dumping of milk in Canada and some plowing down of produce in Florida and other areas,” Von Massow states. “These are short-term phenomena as the food system reallocates some of this supply to different customers and different processors.”
In some cases, food processors may need to change what they sell to meet customer demands in grocery stores.
“We drink more milk at home than we do in food service, and so we have to change a little bit from say cheese production to food milk production, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Many of these overages at the production level were a function of perishable products and no buffer storage inventory that caused us some grief. I think all of those things are going to go away in a matter of days not months and we will see a reallocation of a new normal.”
Von Massow explains that even with meat processing plants temporarily shutting down, it is unlikely that there will be meat shortages. North American trade of meat products, particularly beef, allows for processing plants from the United States to step into the gap that the temporary closure of a processing plant in Canada might create, Von Massow says.
Local will be championed (for a time). In times of economic shock, consumers often become more conscious of where their goods are purchased from. There is an impulse, Von Massow says, to support local producers, retailers and entrepreneurs.
“One of the beauties of our food system is that we do have all of this choice. And I think there will be an inclination to find those local sources,” Von Massow says.
Even larger companies, who are based in smaller communities are advised “to be a hometown hero first,” McCauley says. “There’s a lot of heart for helping our neighbours right now.”
“Entrepreneurs have to take that unique selling point of being a local supplier and champion of your area,” McCauley adds.
That’s an approach that Cowbell Brewing in Blyth took when the COVID-19 situation hit. The brewery started baking bread from spent grains that had been used in the brewing process and baked 50 loaves of bread, offering them for free to community members in Blyth and the surrounding area each day.
“We noticed that bread was in short supply in the area for the community and we wanted to contribute,” says Grant Sparling, the Chief Development Officer at Cowbell.
While Cowbell itself is reporting losses in alcohol sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily due to the closure of restaurants and loss of keg sales, Sparling says doing “the right thing” and addressing a community food need was important for the business.
Approaches like dedicating products for a community will build customer loyalty after the pandemic ends. However, Dr. Jess Haines, an Associate Professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph, states that local entrepreneurs must remain price conscious, as many family budgets will be restricted in the months to come. She warns that producers who sell at farmer’s markets should have competitive prices to align with grocery stores, to maintain longer term engagement with customers.
There will be a return to kitchen essentials. “Everyone, a month ago, was talking about plant-base, plant-base, plant-base, and now everyone is talking about bread. So wow, what a shift in consumer interests,” says Dana McCauley.
When people’s income is insecure, there is a return to basics, McCauley says.
“I’ve been hearing people call it the Great Lockdown, as a reference to the Great Depression. There is going to be a massive economic ripple effect that will probably mean that consumers are going to be much more price sensitive than they were in the past.”
Coming out of this stay-home period, McCauley expects people will want to find affordable foods that will have broad appeal for their families, rather than specialty products.
Online shopping from your neighbourhood business will be more commonplace.
Not only has online grocery shopping become popular in this pandemic period, many small food entrepreneurs have turned to online sales.
Until this, food retailing was primarily done in store but COVID-19 sparked a rapid escalation of online food shopping.
“I expect for some people the experience has been better than they were expecting and they won’t go back,” says Von Massow. “For others, they will go back to the grocery store.”
McCauley suggests more home-based food entrepreneurs could start due to COVID-19. People who use available digital platforms and online stores to sell their products will find a new customer base who have experience with using online platforms to purchase food products.
Utilizing an online storefront to sell vegetable produce is a strategy that Belgrave-area organic farmers Brian Wiley and Tamara McMullen of Firmly Rooted Farm are taking to reach new customers in the aftermath of the COVID-19 stay-home orders. With the closure of restaurants and farmers markets, where Wiley and McMullen normally sell their produce, an online storefront has been essential for their vegetables to continue to find a market.
“People are seeking us out because there seems to be more demand for local products,” Wiley says.
Wiley says there is more administration work involved with setting up and running an online store to sell food products. He advises anyone considering moving business online to go with an online company that has experience in food retailing and to talk to other small businesses who have taken the online approach before diving into online sales.
“Don’t try to figure it out by yourself during this time,” Wiley says.
Cooking skills will become essential. With less income available for many coming out of COVID-19, restaurant sales are not likely to rebound to their previous state.
During the stay-home orders, families have had the time to cook their own meals more often.
“Now, we’re having to plan more. Hopefully we’ll see people develop those skills and use those skills,” says McCauley. “Once you realize that making a stir fry is faster than waiting for Chinese food to arrive, you’ll look at it a little differently.”
The impact could be generational.
“So many people are getting into the kitchen with their children and I’m hopeful that kids are going to be more involved, even if families go back to being super-scheduled,” says McCauley.
Yet, Jess Haines, an expert in Applied Human Nutrition at the University of Guelph, says not everyone has the necessary skills and resources required to prepare healthy meals.
She hopes there is a realization coming out of this pandemic that more food education is required.
“Our society should be set up so that we ensure that when students graduate from high school, they have this very important skill of being able to prepare healthy meals for themselves,” Haines says.
Ensuring that students can develop food skills to develop healthy eating for life, even through pandemics, is something Haines says the government should take action on. ◊