What have we learned from COVID-19, and will anything change?

Opinion

We are a long way from getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as provinces and states begin to relax restrictions, we know that a return to “normal” is possibly months away, and that’s not even accounting for the unknown of whether or not this re-opening of the economy will lead to a second wave of infections.

Regardless of where you sit on if the re-opening is a good idea (spoiler alert: I have my doubts, health-wise), the team here at RealAgriculture has had several discussions on both the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic on agriculture, our food system, and consumer relationships.

Things I’m pretty sure we’ve learned:

  • How to properly wash our hands, and why staying home when you’re ill is important
  • Freezers are really valuable (as are family dinners)
  • A surprising amount of people like to do puzzles
  • The $3 you pay for a loaf of bread is cheap vs. trying to make it yourself

Things I’m pretty sure we have not learned:

  • Always have 3 months’ worth of expenses saved up
  • What an appropriate amount of toilet paper to have on-hand is
  • How our food system works
  • The value of a resilient domestic food system

Through all this we’ve discussed the impact on food and livestock processing, why farmers have had to dump milk, why we don’t have more small processors, and the huge financial toll this pandemic is taking on the agriculture industry. We’ve discussed, too, the difference between the U.S. and Canadian government’s handling of the entire situation (America sends farmers payments, Canada offers farmers access to debt), and what the industry will look like on the other side of this.

If there’s one thing we’ve discussed at length is how much of a lasting impact this crisis has on not just individuals, but also on our farm and food industry as a whole. Shaun wrote a solid column on how the Great Depression left an indelible mark on a generation’s relationship with money. Has COVID-19 done the same for consumers’ relationship with our food system?

Many livestock producers have received a steep increase in direct sale requests in the last month or so. Local butcher shops have been selling out. Suddenly, everyone wants backyard hens, and the market for milk goats even ticked up. The cry of “Buy local!” has reached a fevered pitch.

Humans, though, tend to be rather fickle.

Let’s say that re-opening the economy goes well. Let’s assume that most businesses return to a version of normal by mid-summer — how many of our customers are going to stick with “buying local” or lamenting the loss of small processors? How many backyard hens will suddenly be rather smelly and loud for the few dozen eggs per week, or that side of beef seem like a huge amount of money to hand over all at once when it comes time to fill that freezer?

As much as I hope that more Canadians have a new appreciation for farmers and the complex, just-in-time delivery model of our efficient and productive food system, I somehow doubt all that many people will still be kneading homemade dough this time next year.

In this crisis, many individuals have stepped up to say our food system matters, that local farmers matter, that providing basic food ingredients matters — but I’m not sure that that’s been heard by our governments. And consumers’ fickle nature, I’m afraid, means that this support for here-at-home farmers doesn’t likely have staying power.

And that’s troubling, because this pandemic has and will inflect lasting hurt on our livestock and food industries. It’s identified pinch points and vulnerabilities that need addressed on a large scale. If we’re going to make big changes and improve the resiliency and security of our domestic food system we need our consumers on-side so that our government truly views it as a priority.

One thought on “What have we learned from COVID-19, and will anything change?

  1. You raise some good points and questions. I generally agree. But a few other things we have learned are missing from the list…
    -We have learned that nursing homes and long term care facilities are the weak link in our health care system. This needs and I think will get lasting attention and investment in the future to prevent this from ever happening again. I hope.
    -We have learned that health care is crucial and it’s workers are heroes in many ways. This too should get attention and investment.
    -We have learned that we should produce critical health supplies and equipment (think ventilators and PPE) here in Canada.
    -Local businesses (think restaurants) are suffering and many many not recover. I see this as a similar situation as with some livestock farms unfortunately…but the farms are a few steps removed from consumers and politicians, so it is hard to people to relate. It is easier to relate to the “out of business” sign on local shop windows, which we may see in the near future, unfortunately.
    -We have learned that luxury items are something we can live without. I suspect sales of any luxury items will be slow for the next few years as the economy and families struggle to recover from lost income.
    -I am glad I work in agriculture and food – we are essential and will benefit from a refocusing on the basics.

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