Access to food during the COVID-19 crisis has been a source of anxiety everywhere in the West. But the worst of the pandemic is yet to come, which means that anything can still happen.
Panic buying by people in confinement has already demonstrated the fragility of supply chains, as supermarket shelves were emptying in many countries, including Canada.
Seeing shelves fill up again across the network, most consumers felt reassured. And time and time again, experts have told the public that food security will never be compromised – if borders remain open.
Global supply chains are working due to the goodwill of countries wanting to share wealth and knowledge with others. Essentially, trade is based on the principle that no one country can be good and efficient at everything.
Being a Nordic country, Canada has certain disadvantages. So our relationships with partners abroad allow our agri-food economy to fill in some gaps. We buy and sell with the world. It’s the same for other countries. Countries depend on each other. It’s a simple theory and it’s worked for years.
But in times of crisis, such principles can easily be forgotten. Governments can react unpredictably when fear begins dictating their decisions.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, every effort has been made to ensure trade flows as freely as possible, especially to avoid food shortages. This was the crux of the message from the United Nations and from several governments around the world, including Canada and the United States.
The UN has gone so far as to say that when acting to protect the health and well-being of their citizens, countries should ensure that any trade-related measures don’t disrupt the food supply chain.
But the global agency also had a more provocative message: the world could face a food shortage if authorities fail to properly manage the COVID-19 epidemic.
For now, keeping markets open without interruption has been the focus. But now that governments around the world are trying to curb the spread of COVID-19 by restricting population movements, international trade and food supply chains are beginning to slow.
Agriculture is being affected by the thorny issue of the need for foreign workers. And processing is being disrupted by impromptu factory closings. Trucking, which ensures the connections between links in the chain, is sometimes slowed by more road surveillance.
So the entire supply chain is under extreme pressure.
The world is on the brink of a major slowdown in agri-food trades. Borders are becoming more firm as we get closer to the peak of this pandemic.
Uncertainty about the availability of food can trigger a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on world markets. Such a scenario is highly improbable but not impossible.
For Canada, the United States is the wild card. The number of positive COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is alarming, as are the number of deaths. Adding more pressure is the fact that 10 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past two weeks. Considering the size of our economy, the situation in Canada is slightly worse.
These are unprecedented numbers and they’re very alarming.
And, unfortunately, we all know how fear can influence governments, especially in the U.S. You only need look at the wall being erected on the U.S.-Mexico border.
According to a recent Angus Reid survey, 71 percent of Canadians are either concerned or extremely concerned about the nation’s economy.
In the meantime, when a crisis hits, populations tend to stay close to what’s familiar, which is why the buy-local movement is getting a bit of a lift. And 43 percent of those surveyed said they intend to buy locally once the crisis is over.
It’s always nice to buy local and support our economy. But we all need to think about the big picture: more than 60 percent of the Canadian economy stems from exports.
Things are already getting complicated around the planet. Russia has established export quotas on certain grains until the end of June as that country’s virus cases escalate.
The correlation between the number of COVID-19 cases and the nervousness of governments is strong. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail in North America.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.