Is the Food System Close to Collapse?
The simple answer is NO. In recent days we have heard about shortages in grocery stores and the potential for stores to close because of a lack of workers. We've heard how a vaccine mandate for truckers will dry up supplies of imported goods. We have seen disruptions caused by extreme weather events (rain and flooding in British Columbia and significant snow fall in Ontario). I've seen words like chaos and anarchy and predictions of imminent collapse of our entire food system. The truth is that our food system has proven incredibly resilient through the pandemic. There have been and will continue to be some problems. There are some short and long term issues we need to think about and address but we are not about to run out of food now or in the foreseeable future.
It is worth looking at some of the individual issues. We saw shortages in British Columbia due to flooding which closed both railways and truck routes. There were temporary shortages of food and other items as the supply chain adjusted but there was never a time when there were shortages of all foods that lasted long and compromised food security. More recently we had a significant snow storm in Ontario and there were some stores, particularly in rural Ontario, that had empty shelves. This is not new. Grocery stores get frequent deliveries and have little surplus storage on site. If deliveries are disrupted due to extreme weather or other factors (see truckers in next paragraph), shelves can become empty quickly. These have not persisted and stores seem to be back on track. The shortages meant that we had less choice but not that there was no food available. We've seen these things happen before and are likely more sensitive to them now. It is clear that there are more extreme weather events due to climate change and we may well have to work on adaptation to these events to provide more of a buffer but we are not about to run out of food anywhere and see people rioting in the streets because there is not enough to eat. There is room for change but not to keep food on the table in the coming months but rather to adapt to a changing global reality which includes changing weather due to climate change. That relates not just to the supply chain disruptions but also to production patterns.
We are also hearing a lot about truckers and vaccine mandates. Both Canada and the US have introduced policies that unvaccinated truckers cannot cross the border. COVID issues have exacerbated pre-existing trucker shortages. Trucking is a tough job and not particularly well paid, like many jobs in the food system. We are short truckers which has slowed deliveries. Absences due to COVID have also been a factor. Taking more truckers off certain transnational routes had the potential to further reduce or slow deliveries. This is particularly impactful at this time of year in Canada, when the vast majority of our produce comes across the border from the south. We may well see some temporary shortages but we will have food available. At worst, we will have higher prices and reduced choice. We are not going to go hungry. I have argued that we don't need a vaccine mandate for truckers. I think the trade-offs weigh towards no mandate but I don't think we will run out of food if we keep it in. I also believe that governments are smart enough to change course if there is clear evidence of disruptions in food or other sectors (i.e. auto parts).
Less choice is inconvenient but manageable. Higher prices have a bigger impact on food security than reduced choice will. I'm lucky. I have a good job and can afford some increases in my food choices. I also have the food skills that I can adjust what I buy to buffer some of those increases. The food insecure are more likely to feel the pinch due to any food price increases. They have less discretionary income - if food prices go up at the same time as rents and other things they have to make stark choices between eating and have a roof over their heads. This was true before the pandemic and has more to do with incomes than it does with truckers and vaccinations.
Labour issues existed before the pandemic. We didn't have enough truckers, cooks, agricultural workers, and other food system jobs. These issues are more acute now. This is partly due to people looking for other work when their jobs were shut down. Restaurants are having a lot of trouble getting people to come back. They have found jobs with better schedules, the same or better pay, and in which they don't have the same risk of exposure to either COVID or angry consumers who dislike COVID mitigation measures. It is also due to vaccine mandates. Vaccination requirements have and will mean that some people can't do the jobs that they want to do - like truckers. Another problem is people who are getting COVID or are exposed to someone who does and have to isolate. This is an acute, short term (hopefully) issue that might affect some businesses both in and outside of the food system. Again, COVID is making pre-existing conditions worse. We often see the diverse reasons for shortages conflated.
Low wages and difficult jobs are a reality throughout the food system. This will also require some long term solutions to ensure out ability to meet demand. Shortages of truckers, restaurant workers, agricultural workers and others will not go away when the pandemic ends. This is another issue that needs to be addressed for long term sustainability of the food system. It is a chronic issue that has become acute during the pandemic. Higher pay, greater productivity, and likely more automation will help to deliver some relief to the labour pressure. Higher pay throughout the system will be inflationary but it is likely critical to attracting and keeping people in the jobs that drive our food system from farm to fork.
While significant change and adaptation is needed, the system is not at the point of collapse and we are not in danger of food shortages. If we continue to cry crisis when some of these acute challenges happen we may lose the impetus to make required changes as the system recovers from the acute phases.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, Michael. "Is the Food System Close to Collapse?". Food Focus Guelph (122), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, Oct.5, 2021.