What the global pandemic could mean for Canada's food supply chain 

Agri-food expert says weakening Loonie and potential for political tension could lead to price hikes

click to flip through (2) WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - PANIC PURCHASE Agri-food expert Sylvain Charlebois says even with all the recent panic buying, Canada's grocery stores are well equipped to deal with the increase in demand.
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  • PANIC PURCHASE Agri-food expert Sylvain Charlebois says even with all the recent panic buying, Canada's grocery stores are well equipped to deal with the increase in demand.
 

There are few industries that haven't been touched by the global COVID-19 pandemic, and our food and restaurant sectors are among those that have been hit the hardest. Given the weakening Loonie and the potential for political tension with our neighbours to the south, one agri-food expert says Canadians may start to see prices rise at the grocery store.

"[The dollar] is getting hammered," said Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the agri-food analytics lab at Dalhousie University. "This may actually force food importers to pay more for the food we import and sell here. That would affect produce, seafood, groceries, which are important staples right now, especially when people are buying provisions."

As oil prices drop, Charlebois acknowledged that food distribution costs should actually start to go down, but as nations around the globe look to tighten border restrictions, those savings could be cancelled out as the pandemic worsens.

"There is a dark cloud hovering over, which could represent a problem," he added.

The wildcard, as he often is, is U.S. President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, March 17, Canada announced it would be restricting American border crossings to essential travel. Charlebois said he could foresee a situation where the U.S. president, already infamous for his impulsivity, could look to pin his country's mismanaged response to the crisis on his neighbours to the north and ban the movement of goods.

"Right now, the border is our lifeline. I think Trudeau knows this and Trump, well, he knows it but the question is: does he really care? I think he is being recognized as a leader who really didn't see the gravity of the situation at first," Charlebois said. "[The U.S.] is in an election year, so if it is seen as a popular move to block everything in and out of the United States because Americans are the best at this and the best at that, that could be a problem for us."

Whenever a geopolitical spat or widescale disaster like this arises, there is debate about whether Canada should diversify its trade supply and place the emphasis on more homegrown products. The majority of B.C.'s vegetable imports, for instance, are from the U.S., with more than half of that coming from California.

"Every time there's a crisis, these questions get asked: Should we become more sovereign? Should we process more of our own food? But nothing changes, really," Charlebois said.

While Canadians may see some sticker shock at the register for imported foods, Charlebois said our domestic food supply chain is in good health—even with the recent rush of panic buying at grocery stores across the country.

"There's enough to be sold. As shelves get replenished, I think people will get disciplined a bit more and there will be more [limits on buying essential items] as well," he said.

"Warehousing and logistics are really good and can address all of these issues. The problem that we saw in the news, in papers, is merchandising couldn't keep up with the day-to-day demand, but pallets were going in and relieving stores."

It seems unlikely that will be enough to quell shoppers fears of heading to the supermarket. According to a joint Angus Reid-Dalhousie poll released this week, Canadians are more worried about being infected at the grocery store than at a restaurant. Sixty-five per cent of Canadians polled said they were concerned about risks at the grocery store. Even still, 57 per cent of those who are concerned continue to buy groceries for themselves, while five per cent have asked someone else to go for them, and three per cent have opted to buy groceries online since the beginning of the outbreak.

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