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Will we now agree to pay more for food?

Our country’s main farm organization, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, says that if the federal government doesn’t create an emergency funding package for farmers, our domestic food supply is at risk.

According to the federation, the COVID-19 pandemic has put farmers in a perilous situation.

Farm labour is chronically in short supply, so farmers count on temporary farm workers from other countries to get them over the hump during the busiest times, like spring planting. But now, farmers think difficulties associated with travel and quarantine will make labour shortages even worse.

And even if they are fortunate to get a crop planted, some farmers worry there will be no market for their crops when they’re harvested. Or that prices will be so low that it’s not even worth planting them. Or that there won’t be enough labour available at harvest time and their grains, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables will rot in fields and orchards.

Crop wise, low prices are a particular problem right now for corn producers. In the U.S., which sets the pace for the price of corn in North America, a portion of the corn crop usually goes toward making ethanol. But with travel having stalled, ethanol use, like gasoline, is way down. So corn reserves are piling up and the price is dropping.

Markets have gone haywire. COVID-19 outbreaks among processing plant workers have forced big pork and beef plants to close temporarily. That drives processing down, creates an oversupply, drives up their expenses and reduces profitability.

Before this, beef farmers in Ontario were already struggling mightily because of reduced processing capacity. The COVID-19 pandemic makes matters that much worse.

And who could have foreseen chicken consumption dropping? It’s been a shining star in Canadian food production, with sales rising steadily for years, particularly as a fast food. But with the restaurant trade having crashed because of the pandemic, the market for chicken has been slashed and there’s an oversupply of it, too. Chicken farmers have been told to cut back production.

We know the milk situation – same thing, too much production for current conditions, and processing challenges that make swiftly adapting to change difficult.

All this has created a volatile market for consumers and for producers. It’s forced the national federation of agriculture to use strong language – like holding out the possibility of a reduced domestic food supply – in asking Ottawa for an emergency fund for farmers who are navigating uncharted waters while trying to keep us all fed.

The federation didn’t ask for a specific amount in aid. It appeared to be more interested in a promise of some kind of additional help, to shore up farmers’ confidence.

Ottawa has held out a hand to farmers on some fronts, like loan extensions and support for temporary farm workers in quarantine. But farmers inevitably compare their plight to their counterparts in the U.S. There, $16 billion has been committed to COVID-19 emergency programs. Farmers will get cash payments of up to $250,000 each. And Washington will spend another $3 billion to buy fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat, to donate to food banks and other charities.

Canadians need to get food from somewhere. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how much our food system is exposed to risk. We can’t rely on the U.S. to bail us out with food, any more than we could count on it for masks it tried to hoard to stave off the COVID-19 virus.

But if we want a more reliable domestic food supply, we have to invest in it and support it. Farmers are being urged to look at creating their own on-farm processing, so we’re not so dependent on big companies and chains. That will cost a lot of money, however, for capital costs and food safety measures.

Will we support farmers, or fall back into our old habits of buying the cheapest food we can find? It depends on our individual priorities, how vulnerable we feel, and whether we understand food systems in ways we didn’t before.

That means consumer education will need to be delivered in abundance in our new world. Without it, we’ll be forever caught playing cat and mouse with our own food system … and our own food supply.

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