For many years farm organizations like the Alberta Federation of Agriculture have been championing growth in the local food industry as a means to get more value-added dollars for agricultural producers in niche markets and to provide a solid backbone for Canada’s domestic food security going forward.
While there has been a growing local food industry in Alberta in recent decades, it is still small in scale and under-supported by consumers, says Lynn Jacobson, president of the AFA, and pales in comparison to the multi-billion dollar ag export and food-processing systems which typify Canadian agriculture in this current age.
Jacobson says the unanticipated impacts of COVID-19 on Canada’s food system may lead many in the ag industry and in government to revisit the idea of domestic food security in the aftermath of the pandemic once all the dust settles and the final taxpayer tally comes in.
“I really think there has to be an assessment on the importance of self-sufficiency and food security,” he says.
“It is one of those discussions that we have said food security is important to our producers and local production is good, but people have ignored it, and governments have ignored it. It’s hard to push that agenda forward until you get something like this. I guess this is starting to show us how important our food security and food production system is, and how vulnerable it can be.”
Jacobson says it isn’t just the recent challenges we have been seeing at major meat and potato processing plants in Southern Alberta which shows those vulnerabilities– it’s everything down the food supply chain line from farmers at the field level, to transport drivers, to the people who work the tills at the food retail level, all of which can undermine our food security.
According to Jacobson, we have to think outside of the direct supply of food to fully understand those vulnerabilities as well.
“If we had the (COVID) statistics New York State has, or New York City has, in say Calgary or Edmonton; or if it happened all the way across our province. What would that do to us even more? We are vulnerable to certain degree on that end of it, but also our relationship to food has to be re-assessed.
“Getting outside of even agriculture for our assessment of disease and disease control, and the hiring of people in extended care facilities to the grocery clerk …
“I think people didn’t realize how important the grocery clerk was to their sustainability.”
Jacobson says the current crisis shows definitively how our agricultural prosperity depends on so many levels of society previously thought unrelated to agriculture.
And on the same token, he says, it also teaches consumers who may have thought very little about the basis for their food security before the COVID crisis began to start thinking about the complex nature and vital importance of the food supply system, and ultimately the farmer at its base.
Jacobson suspects, besides opening people’s eyes, the pandemic may also prompt another side effect– a growing emphasis on Canadian food sustainability.
This might lead to, he speculates, potentially more consumers seeking out local food sources to balance out future uncertainties, which would help both consumers and local food growers going forward.
“If we can get people in grocery stores to start buying more local food that will keep your local food producer in business,” he summarizes.