Resiliency versus efficiency

We learned how vulnerable our beef supply chain was during the BSE crisis. We learned how vulnerable our poultry and pork industries were during the Avian and Swine flues, respectively.

With Covid-19 we’re learning how Canada, a country blessed with agricultural lands and output, is vulnerable to food shortages because of the ‘efficiencies’ we’ve built into our supply chains.

The majority of our meat production goes through huge multi-national meat processing plants. To achieve large returns for shareholders and ‘cheap’ food, these companies use low paid, temporary workers and immigrants to work closely together in conditions where viruses thrive and spread. 

The Cargill plant in High River, where half of its workers were infected and some died, is owned by 100+ family members out of Minneapolis, 14 of whom are billionaires. 

The JBS meatpacking plant in Brooks is owned by a Brazilian company, the largest meat processing company in the world.

Yet when Mr. Trudeau announced his first round of financial help to the agricultural industry, $77 million was set aside to invest in safer working conditions in these foreign-owned plants. It’s disgusting on one front—bailing out billionaires—but  on the other front, this public investment has a payback in terms of putting a lid on health care costs.

We got through BSE, SARS, Avian flu and Swine flu because it didn’t take down the whole world at once. 

This pandemic, however, has shone a light on how vulnerable food security is worldwide. 

Liberating world trade and reducing responsible controls between countries has liberated the power of biology—pests, viruses, diseases, fungi—leading to the overuse of pesticides, antibiotics and chemicals. 

Most concerning is the very real crisis facing the world’s number one pollinator—the bee.

Once again, we are looking at the obvious—our agriculture industry’s supply chains for local consumption need to be nimbler and more sustainable, and our native ecosystems need to be better respected. 

Every time there’s been an unforeseen crisis, large processing plants have always been the juggernaut in our meat processing capabilities, and often have benefited the most from government bailouts. 

Granted, large food processing plants and factory farms are important to provide equitable and cheap food for a hungry world, but building resilience into our local food supply chain is also gravely important. 

Crisis after crisis we just fall back into the old ways of doing things.

In our subsidy programs, let’s start making a sizable distinction between BigAg and Canadian agriculture delivered by medium-sized and smaller operators who are on the land, not investors from afar.  

More attention should be given to how we build up and sustain local horticultural operations, farmer’s markets, organic producers, agricultural cooperatives, and small and medium-sized producers. 

It’s nonsense that we allow our meat supply chain to be completely vulnerable, in a land of plenty, because the government hasn’t prioritized and supported locally-owned meat-packing plants.

There’s no better time than after this pandemic to shift the balance of subsidies away from BigAg and towards the rest of the agricultural sector. 

Producing food is a tough business with outrageous input costs (compliments of BigAg) and many uncontrollable factors, but it is also our most important industry.

Local and regional food networks should be our government’s subsidy priority. 

Governments must build resiliency into the system so that all Canadians, rich and poor, can rest assured that our agriculture industry has the ability to provide uninterrupted, healthy and affordable food even during a pandemic.

 

B. Schimke

ECA Review

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Brenda Schimke

Brenda Schimke

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