The Global Food Supply Chain is Already Morphing

Given the numerous and complex challenges facing its flow of operation, the global food supply chain has been able to hold up surprisingly well in these last six months of the pandemic. Two key points are vital here, however.

To begin with, it’s weakening at some key pressure points in the delivery and supply system in ways that don’t offer an easy fix. Farm workers in developing regions of the globe, where vast amounts of our food originate, have fallen victim to COVID-19 and the spread among them continues. Transport centres – docks, ports, airstrips, train and road depots – have fallen prey to giant shutdowns as prevention measures are implemented to contain the spread of the virus. Similar problems confront the regional transport centres in the Europe and North America.

And then there is the point researchers and developers have been warning about for decades: the global supply chain is massively wasteful, environmentally threatening, and guilty of poor labour practices, including poor pay. But food gets delivered fairly cheaply to our communities, prompting little thought, or challenge, to getting mass appeal for developing a more sustainable and local alternative.

COVID is now changing all of that and it’s bringing about levels of innovation and collaboration that can be revolutionary should they survive the pandemic era.

We recall the early days of the virus, where consumers hoarded what they could acquire, leaving shelves empty and the on-demand supply in serious jeopardy. While Canada fared moderately well in this area, we all remember the lines at food banks and relief centres from around the world. The strains on grocery stores and markets were enormous. Food is a necessity and essential to our survival, and because of that it places grocery employees in the crosshairs of virus spread.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that such challenges only arrived with the pandemic; in reality, they were already the pressure points of a global food system that was sagging under its own inefficiencies. What COVID has done is brought these issues out into the open and caused many to seek for alternative solutions to the one-size-fits-all practice that has been blindly accepted for decades.

And as a result, practices are slowly changing. We are seeing cooler doors in grocery stores now triggered by foot pedals instead of pulled by handles, thereby limiting physical contact. The flow around some stores is looking more like a traffic grid than the hodgepodge that existed previously, making social distance easier to achieve.  “Everything is on the table for reassessment,” one Loblaws executive told us recently and it remains unsure what the future of grocery stores will entail.  How will they mitigate risk, flow people, keep their food decontaminated, insure the protection of their staffs just as much as their customers? Will they turn more readily to a pick-up model, where customers order their supplies online and then slip through grocery store parking lots to pick up their supplies without ever leaving their cars? This is already being implemented in some locations.

That’s just what’s happening within stores; what’s taking place beyond them is even more pattern-breaking. Delivery of food supplies is going through the roof, including from restaurants. Thousands are purchasing directly from farms in a pattern that avoids excessive social contact but also gets buyers all that much closer to fresh food.

This might appear temporary, but the longer it continues the more it makes sense. It’s not all just about convenience and price, but about safety, food sourcing, the pursuit of local solutions, and the desire to fight climate change along the way. Previously, food was part of a giant system of transportation and convenience; it is now morphing into something more organic, community-minded, safer, more environmentally minded, and, above all, healthier.

What we assumed would be a temporary adaptation to survive a crisis is rapidly on its way to becoming something transformative. We are all understanding more clearly that COVID won’t be our last pandemic – we have already experienced over 20 in the last three decades – and that we can’t just kept altering our lifestyles every few years to adapt in the moment. These new practices aren’t about surviving pandemics but actually stopping them, through better growing, producing, selling and consumption practices.

All this tends to point to a future of systems change. There will be huge effects on the industry and some components may not survive. Consumers will have to think more about how they go about acquiring their food. In the end, however, these changes could put a serious dent in climate change, wasted food, more conscientious citizenry, and governments that develop policies that are better than just bottom-line advantages.  In the next blog, we’ll take a look at what that might look like.

Glen Pearson

Co-Executive Director

London Food Bank

Thinking Differently About Food

For decades activists for a local fresh food revolution have pressed decision makers, , businesses, marketers and consumers to focus more on the need to look closer to home for food supply chains.  It’s been a tough slog, full of ups and downs, as they have always been in competition with a global supply chain that offered variety, availability and consistency, at the same time as it prompted environmental damage, demeaning wages and monopolized service.

The arrival of the Coronavirus has changed all that, as people begin looking closer to home for their food as a way of fending off the threat of the pandemic. It’s no accident that demand for locally grown food has skyrocketed, nor that the supply of growing amenities like greenhouses are backlogged. It turns out that all those ideas furthered by the “grow and purchase local” movement had serious merit after all and communities are in the process of catching up.

In a time when individuals and families face emerging insecurity about the things that they touch and the food they eat, there is a growing concern about digesting food from thousands of miles away from a grouping of just a few food conglomerates that we don’t really know or see. It’s a valid concern, and despite the reality that the global food supply chain has proved remarkably durable despite the pandemic, customers increasingly look for food that is more natural, fresh and local.

It turns out that we can visualize that transformation by looking at our own communities. In London, Ontario, as an example, local grocery stores are cooperating with City Hall in diverting tens of thousands of pounds of fresh produce each month from the landfills and getting them, still fresh, to the local food bank for distribution to needy families. It’s an environmental measure that has real social consequence.

Farmers and growers in the region are taking part in a federal COVID initiative called the Surplus Food Rescue Program, in part to ensure that more locally grown foodstuffs get into the communities that require them in a time of emergency.

Such measures are urgently required, but there are more long-lasting activities getting new opportunities and exposure that are destined to continue long after the pandemic has receded into the history books. Things like urban gardens, food trees, even a large greenhouse being constructed at the back of the food bank, are signs of things that will endure past COVID.

The transformation of the farming industry in recent decades has led to the closing of thousands of farms in the global race for the bottom line. That has left some growers and producers well-positioned to take advantage of such monopolies but the majority of farmers have openly expressed their desire to get back to the practice of supplying the communities around them and being part of healthy living as opposed to just cheap goods. And they do have an advantage on their side at present, as this pandemic has proved the point that local has better stability, knowledge and nutrition advantages over the current global supply and can easily endure in all conditions and not just pandemics.

In almost every sector of Canadian communities there is continually voiced the theme of “building back better.”  Nowhere is this more valid than in the food industry. In every facet of food supply – grain, produce, fisheries, agriculture, to name a few – there are new incentives to get more local food into stores, markets and homes. At a time when global consumption is under scrutiny, the prospect of healthy farms and healthy food is just the ticket millions of Canadians are looking for.

But within all this positive movement lies an abiding threat. While it’s all beneficial, municipalities and communities aren’t effectively resourcing the infrastructure necessary for the long-term health of the local food supply chain. For the sake of future food security, investments must be made in enhancing local food markets, more efficient water management, needed environmental adaptation, clearer education for the benefits of locally grown foodstuffs, the effective redirection of local food from the global chain to the community where it is grown, and the overall design to turn our communities into food-secure areas. No COVID-19 recovery plan designed by any community can be truly effective without such measures.

The great threat is if we just lazily recede back into the spending patterns and growing practices of life before the pandemic. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now or in the future. Communities are moving in the local food direction because it makes sense and not just because it secures us in a time of pandemic. We need to build food and ecosystem resiliency and this pandemic has perhaps given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally get to what we should have been doing all along.

The next few blogs will look further into this challenge each day, but for now we should all be looking for food systems change and not just for an emergency plan to get us through some difficult days.

Glen Pearson

Co-Executive Director

London Food Bank

Community Gardens: Food, not Recreation

When the Government of Ontario closed parks, playing fields, and other “recreational amenities,” community gardens were included in the list.  On behalf of the thousands of Ontarians who rely on these gardens for food, we urgently call on the government to classify community gardens as essential food services, allowing the gardens to open in time for spring preparations and planting.

The COVID-19 pandemic is dire and forceful governmental action is certainly warranted; at the same time, the gardens, like other essential food services, could easily operate in a way that does not add to the health risks. Even though community gardens are not commercial food operations, they provide proven benefits for individuals and communities: for us, one role that stands out as crucial is the community’s food security.

Closing community gardens now effectively means that thousands of people will lose access to tonnes of fresh, local fruit and produce from their own community gardens and from the shelves of our food banks and other hunger relief organizations who benefit from those gardens. It won’t matter whether the restrictions are lifted later in the summer because without garden preparation and planting this spring, the entire growing season will be lost. We need to be in the gardens on the dry, warm days now for there to be fresh produce in August. The loss of an entire season’s worth of fresh, local fruit and produce would be a devastating blow even in a normal year, but we all know that there is nothing normal about the current situation. The loss of this season’s harvest will be much worse for our communities.

The unprecedented economic collapse we are living through is already driving up the need for emergency food services, and that need is expected to keep rising, putting additional pressure on organizations providing hunger relief. Food costs are also projected to keep rising, pushing the need for emergency food services even higher. COVID-19 is expected to result in agricultural labor shortages this summer and fall, further impacting food costs and possibly affecting production, resulting in sporadic food shortages, further destabilizing our communities’ food security. Even if there is significant funding put into emergency hunger relief later this year, without community gardens there will not be the tonnes of fresh, local fruit and produce readily available to fill that need. Food insecurity also has a curve that needs to be flattened; because community gardens are one measure for flattening it, keeping them closed steepens the curve.

Given the importance of community gardens in supporting  families, communities, and  local food banks and charitable hunger relief organizations, the closure of these gardens this spring constitutes a threat to communities’ food security at an especially vulnerable and treacherous time. They don’t have to be closed as part of the fight against COVID-19. The same physical distancing practices and protocols recommended for other essential agriculture and food services can be applied to community garden spaces (see our website for a set of recommendations). Many other locales across Canada and the US, including the province of BC, have recognized community gardens as essential food services permitted to operate under physical distancing protocols. We urge the government of Ontario to do the same, and we call on all Ontarians to support this critical action.

Benjamin Hill, chairperson
Middlesex-London Food Policy Council

Skylar Franke, executive director
London Environmental Network

Becky Ellis, chair
London Urban Beekeepers Collective
Permaculture for the People

Stephen Harrott,
Friends of Urban Agriculture London (FUAL)

Community Gardens are Essential Food Services

The Middlesex London Food Policy Council is joining Sustain Ontario and other organizations provincewide to call on the government of Ontario to identify community gardens as essential food services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The provincial government’s statement on Monday includes community gardens in the list of outdoor recreational amenities to remain closed until at least April 13, which places the season for those gardens at risk. More importantly, identifying community gardens as recreational rather than as part of the food production and distribution system understates the important role the gardens fill.

The City of London’s urban agriculture strategy emphasizes the importance of urban agriculture to provide access to nutritious and affordable food, improve physical and mental health and quality of life, and contribute to a sustainable, resilient food system. Research additionally supports these claims about the benefits of community gardens in urban spaces. There are 17 active community gardens within the city. Across the province, tens of thousands of families rely on community gardens for food.

According to Sustain Ontario, “This model of community food production is seen as integral to the COVID-19 response in countries throughout the world, particularly as food prices increase and global food supplies are increasingly uncertain. Food banks also receive literally tonnes of much needed fresh food from local community gardening efforts in communities all around Ontario.” The province of BC includes in its list of essential services: “food cultivation, including farming, livestock, aquaculture and fishing, and businesses that support the food supply chain, as well as community gardens and subsistence agriculture”.

For more information please contact:
Benjamin Hill, MLFPC Chair
info@MLFPC.ca

Processing Vegetable Growers lose critical bargaining power

On December 11, 2019 Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, released a statement describing the amendments to Regulation 440. The changes will no longer allow the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG) board the ability to negotiate on behalf of growers to ensure contracts are paid as negotiated. Growers are busy doing what they do best…producing food. Losing their collective bargaining power is removing a tool from their toolbox, leaving growers to take on more risk. This will result in growers feeling ignored and unsupported to make the best business decision.

In an ideal world, policies, subsidies and insurance programs would be made in the best interest of the growers. This contributes to a healthier, more sustainable food system as the growers are the closest to the land and have the knowledge about best practices. We all have an obligation to ensure that farm businesses are able to operate in a profitable and sustainable way.

There is tremendous value to organized, collective marketing for all Ontario growers, but only ifthe growers are supported in the process.  It takes work to come up with creative and innovative solutions and we need to have confidence and curiosity to pursue changes. Let’s get serious about our food system. Peggy is right we are dealing with real farmers, real families, real communities…without their success we have no food system.

New Mandate Letter for Agriculture and Agri-Food

On December 13 Justin Trudeau released the Mandate Letter for Marie-Claude Bibeau, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. The letter underscores the aim of building a stronger, more inclusive and more resilient country. Trudeau also directs every Minister to accelerate and build on the progress previously made to support self-determination, improve service delivery, and advance reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit, and MĂ©tis Peoples. And Trudeau emphasizes the need for open, effective, honest, and transparent government.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Priorities

Within Agriculture and Agri-Food, Trudeau underscores the goal that agriculture continues to be a leader in job creation and innovation as well as maximizing its export growth potential. The Letter spells out ten priorities for the Minister Bibeau:

  • Review risk management programs with a special focus on AgriStability to help manage environmental and business risks.
  • Work on tax measures to facilitate the intergenerational transfer of farms.
  • Create a new entity, Farm and Food Development Canada, that consolidates federal financial and advisory services for agriculture.
  • Protect Canada’s supply-managed agriculture sections and develop with them a vision of the future in a world of global free-trade agreements.
  • To identify additional tools that help Canada’s agriculture and agri-food businesses export and diversify into global markets.
  • Develop additional capacity to respond to trade disputes based on recent experiences.
  • Provide leadership for the implementation of the new Food Policy for Canada, which aims to:
    • Help Canadian communities access healthy food;
    • Make Canadian food the top choice at home and abroad;
    • Support food security in northern and Indigenous communities; and
    • Reduce food waste.
  • Support the Minister of Health to ensure that the Pest Management Regulatory Agency is making science-based decisions that lead to safe and suitable uses of crop protection products in Canada.
  • Create a new fund to help producers and processors close technological and infrastructure gaps inhibiting the development of domestic and international markets.
  • Create a new Canada Water Agency to work with other stakeholders to find the best ways to keep our water safe, clean, and well-managed.

Middlesex-London Food Policy Council

Many of these priorities will directly impact the communities and residents of Middlesex County and the City of London, though they do not exhaust the issues of concern to us. As a Council, we are looking forward to watching the Liberal government’s progress on these priorities and on other issues facing Canada’s food and agriculture sectors and are looking forward to being one (of many) local partners in support of a robust and resilient Canadian food system.

What do you think are the most pressing food-related concerns facing the Middlesex-London region and its residents? Please share your ideas with us in the comments.