COVID-19 and our Food System
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
We are living in extraordinary times. Many provinces and states have shut down virtually all non-essential commerce. People are working from home or have been temporarily laid off. We have seen rushes on food and grocery items (like toilet paper and hand sanitizer) that have resulted in some short-term shortages in stores. People have questioned the resilience of our food system. Are we running out of food? The easy answer is no. Our food system has proven to be robust and resilient. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement but it is not a time for panic or rash changes.
We have cheap food. It doesn’t always feel like it, but we spend the second lowest proportion of our income on food in the world – the US is lower. We have an abundance of safe and affordable food. We also have an incredible diversity of food products available.
Yes, we have seen some shortages on grocery store shelves. BUT, we have seen stores restocked regularly and I expect the system will catch up. The just-in-time process used in our food system is not unique to food supply chains. It is based on producing and shipping product to expected demand. It depends on good forecasts and smooth delivery. We have seen a significant uptick in demand as people bought large quantities in anticipation of being at home for long periods of time. This was exacerbated by panic buying when people saw shortages in the store or heard of shortages in the media. We saw product restocked (although often bought quickly). I expect that we will see a return to some semblance of normality reasonably soon – at least with respect to food stocks in stores. This is supported by policies at stores limiting quantities that people can purchase. Demand for things like hand sanitizer will continue to be high. It is hard to believe that demand for other food products won’t stabilize relatively quickly, even if people continue to hold extra stock at home. Grocery stores will see an increase in demand for food as restaurants are closed, but that will simply shift demand from food service distribution to supermarket distribution rather than increasing total demand.
Food supply chains have been protected through border closures this far and I would expect for that continue. The most important border for Canada’s food supply chain (and that of the US for that matter) is the Canada/US border. More than half of our food exports come from the US. During the winter months we import more as we get fresh produce from warmer climes. If the border closed would we go hungry? NO! We would have less fresh produce although we would still have Canadian apples, potatoes and other products in storage. We would also have frozen products available. Given the sales forecasts for these items, we would likely begin to run short of those until the Canadian growing season kicks in. There would be bread, milk, meat, and cheese readily available. We might see a decrease in variety, but we won’t run out of food.
One of the things that gives the food system resilience is the range of sources and processors. If a food processor were to have a significant outbreak of illness (COVID-19 or anything else) we have many other processors to fill the gap. There might be short term adjustment and it could hurt producers in specific regions, but we have the flexibility to adjust in most cases.
We need to be vigilant. Spring planting is coming soon. We need to be sure we get seed, fertilizer, and labour in place to ensure the crop gets planted. I am confident that will happen.
We need to continue to review our food system for supply, equity, and security. There are undoubtedly things we need to improve. But I think what we have seen in recent weeks is a food system that faced significant challenges and bent but didn’t break – the very definition of resilience.
Recommended Citation Format: von Massow, M. "COVID-19 and our Food System". Food Focus Guelph (76), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, March 23rd, 2020.