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Pandemic sparks call for new look at agri-food policy

The COVID-19 pandemic has made Canadians question some of the most fundamental activities in our society – such as how we care for the elderly, the way we run our schools and where we get our food – and whether they should change in light of threats or flaws that have emerged.

Such fundamental activities are multi-faceted and feature many moving parts. Earlier this week, a report was released in which three agri-food analysts teamed up to look at how Canadian agricultural prices and trade flows have changed dramatically in domestic and international markets.

They’re calling for a new Canadian agri-food policy, even though our country developed one just last June.

But that was before the pandemic. The trio – Al Mussel, Ted Bilyea and Douglas Hedley, united under a Guelph-based organization called Agri-Food Economic Systems – say the world has changed so much that Canada needs to take another look at where it stands, food-wise.

And taking stock of the status quo is only part of the task for our country.    

“Our great difficulty is to fully come to grips with the situation that lies ahead of us,” says Mussell. “Our challenge has been one of managing the abundance of farm and food products at price levels and volatility that provide farm profitability and an efficient investment climate. But that was in a more secure trade and geo-political environment. The challenge of abundance remains, but we must now also consider food security and the risk of sudden collapse of segments in fashioning agri-food policy.”

The abundance he mentions leads us to export a lot of what our farmers produce. The Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance says Canada exports $56 billion a year in agriculture and agri-food products. About half of what we produce is exported as either primary commodities, from farmers’ fields onto trucks, rail or ships and sent abroad, or as processed food and beverage products.

That huge export percentage means we have policies in place to support it. Of course we do. What would a country like ours with a relatively small population do with all that food if we didn’t export it?

Well, we’d better start pondering that question, just like we’re considering so many other fundamental aspects of society. Because despite our will and our best efforts, there’s no guarantee those export markets are going to grow, let alone remain stable. And if that’s the case, we’ll need policies that reflect the change.

Such thinking is spurred on by uncertainty, protectionist talk and to a lesser extent, actual measures, by some of our trading partners, particularly Europe and the U.S.

But it’s also a product of the fear we have at home, of not having enough food when something like a pandemic hits. And with all the concern about the second wave of the pandemic arriving this fall or winter, citizens of countries everywhere want to make sure their governments protect them.

The onus is now on the Canadian agri-food sector and the Canadian government to make sure we are covered at home, while at the same time not miss emerging opportunities. For example, people worldwide are cooking at home more, and using basic ingredients such as flour. Canada produces some of the world’s best wheat that gets turned into flour. This is an opportunity, for sure.

But if we are going to export food into other countries, we also need to be open to importing food from them. That’s just the way the system works, even if at times it doesn’t look that way.

That openness threatens some of the markets we’ve long protected.

And that’s another reason new policies are needed – to make sure we’re looked after, and thatwe don’t sacrifice any of our own commodities or sectors in the name of so-called fairness.

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