• Michelle Hunniford

Don’t Panic! COVID-19 and Disruption in Agriculture

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

First, let me paint you a picture. Everything about COVID-19 is unprecedented. It’s a shock to the system. Never before has the entire world been affected simultaneously by something of this magnitude – not during the world wars or previous pandemics – not because of the number of cases or deaths, but because of the level of disruption. We have spent the last 70 years after WWII becoming more globalized than any other time in history until… it all stopped. All of humanity was grounded, literally. Confined to their homes, restaurants were closed, workplaces became remote. And it all happened fast with little warning.

Although we are all experiencing a storm, its magnitude, and our ability to weather that storm varies dramatically. But in terms of food, people in the developed world are eating more meals at home and eating out less because of restaurant closures. This simple fact is at the heart of a huge domino effect that is impacting the whole supply chain.

Shifting Demand

Let’s take eggs as an example. People aren’t commuting right now, so even though restaurants have drive-throughs, people are not buying breakfast sandwiches as much as they used to. So those restaurants are not sourcing as many eggs as they usually would. At the same time, eggs are flying off the shelves in grocery stores as everyone tries their hand at baking for the first time (two months in and I still can’t get yeast!).

The birds are still laying the same amount of eggs, but there is a change in where those eggs need to go. And it’s not as simple as shunting eggs away from restaurants and towards grocery stores. Those eggs that were going to a restaurant would have been packaged in a much larger format – think a case with 180 eggs. But to sell them in the grocery store, they need to be in a format that people can buy – a carton of 12 or a flat of 30. At one point during the COVID-19 outbreak, the egg industry actually ran out of fibre egg cartons because demand was so high!

The grading stations – where eggs get washed and checked for cracks – had to work overtime to keep up with the demand for eggs from grocery stores. Eggs that would have gone to liquid egg processing were also being graded in unprecedented numbers. And it still wasn’t enough to meet demand at the height of panic-buying. The egg industry was able to adapt and things have since stabilized, but it took some time to adjust because of the speed at which things are changing. In many food industries, the shift from restaurant to grocery has been difficult and has led to surpluses and deficits where there was a well-orchestrated balance three months ago.

Plant Closures

Agriculture has been declared an essential service in Canada and abroad. Makes sense, we all have to eat. However, by their very design, processing facilities and slaughterhouses require people to work in close proximity, as is true for any factory. Because they are essential and have had to remain open, there have been substantial outbreaks of COVID-19 at several processing plants (e.g. Cargill plant near High River, Alberta). Previous emphasis in food processing plants was on preventing food contamination and not on minimizing disease transmission between people. In the future, all workplaces, including factories, will likely be re-designed with infectious diseases in mind, forever changing the way we manage food.

For now, processing plants are doing their very best to ensure employees are safe. Shields are being installed to keep employees separate where physical distancing is not possible; Personal Protective Equipment is now being worn at all times, even in lunchrooms and offices; sanitation and disinfection protocols are being amplified with some employees solely dedicated to wiping surfaces; and shifts are being staggered to minimize employees working in close proximity. Some companies have even implemented temperature checks and advanced screening procedures before every shift. In some cases where outbreaks have been severe and difficult to control, concern for employee safety has resulted in plants shutting down to re-tool and implement further measures to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

These plant closures have had significant consequences. A plant closure may contribute to temporary product shortages in some areas – you may have seen photos of empty meat cases. Another downstream effect is on farmers and their animals. If a processing plant closes, some animals ready to be processed may have nowhere to go. This is a farmer’s nightmare. They have raised these animals for weeks, months or years to reach market weight (a target set by the “market” in which they will sell the meat, grocery or restaurant for example), so now they have to go into crisis mode.

This presents an animal welfare dilemma. In the broiler industry in Canada, once a chicken destined for the grocery store has reached the target size, they will be sent to a nearby provincially or federally inspected slaughterhouse to be processed into meat. If that plant is closed, which is a highly unusual situation, the farmer and processing company must then come up with a plan. The birds at the farm will continue to grow, which means the barn will become more densely crowded by the day (if measured in kg per area, as is common for meat birds).

The best option would be to send the birds to an alternate processor. We are all in this together, and processors would work together for the sake of the animals. However, depending on where the farm is located, a processor may be too far away or already have reached their processing capacity. Another option if the farmer knows a plant is closed in advance would be to decrease the size of their flock. However, the rapid emergence of COVID-19 demands quick reactions rather than advanced planning, which has disrupted the finely crafted balance in agriculture.

The absolute last resort, when all other options have been exhausted by farmer and processor, is to euthanize the whole flock. From the perspective of the farmer, they would rather humanely kill their flock rather than see them suffer. The emotional toll that this would take on the farmer is incredible -- no farmer wants to see this outcome for perfectly healthy animals. But the farmers would act in the best interest of the birds. I truly feel for the plight of farmers in this situation. To my knowledge, this has not happened at any chicken farms to date in Canada (but it has happened elsewhere). This speaks volumes to the hard work and dedication of farmers and processors to work together and find solutions in such a challenging time.

Learn and Adapt

COVID-19 has shocked our food system. In response, the agriculture industry has swiftly implemented measures to keep people safe, ensure the best animal welfare they could, all while continuing to provide safe, nutritious, and affordable food to the public. Everyone involved in producing food, from the farmer to the food processor, truly provides an essential service.

But we can always do better, and COVID-19 has shed some light on our weaknesses. This is always the way in agriculture. We are presented with a challenge, and we find innovative ways to meet it so we can be more prepared in the future. In the months to come, there will be much discussion and debate over how to handle this sort of disruptive chain of events in the future.

It is hard to say what the future will look like. Some possible outcomes from this may include introducing more redundancies in the supply chain to make it more robust, emphasizing local buying, and creating smaller processing plants. We may also need to embrace more radical ways of thinking about our food system so that we are prepared to meet challenges that we haven’t even imagined yet. But don’t panic, we will do it together.

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