Viewpoints From our Desk Our Precarious Food Chain

Our Precarious Food Chain

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As we watched the world as we know it disappear while the global pandemic unfolded, I found myself dumbfounded. I grew up on a farm and have worked in the agriculture industry as a reporter for years now, but I honestly had no idea how much it all depended on the restaurant industry.

Ashley Robinson headshot
Spud Smart Editor Ashley Robinson

We still have roughly the same amount of people on this globe and all of those people still need to eat, even if they are doing so at home instead of out at a restaurant. Wouldn’t this mean the agriculture industry could just continue along producing the same amount of food as before? That would be the easy answer, however it turns out it isn’t that simple.

Over the last century we’ve developed a highly advanced food supply chain. We’ve built factories with machines which are either designed to process and package food individually for families or in bulk for the restaurant industry. Farmers have branched out from selling to processors and have developed individual supply relationships with local restaurants. They’ve also sold directly to customers through farmers’ markets and similar services.

This spring it seemed as if overnight the entire food supply system was flipped upside down. Restaurants across North America were forced to close their in-dining operations to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Grocery stores were forced to limit the amount of people in stores. And farmers, who had cultivated those personal relationships, either saw demand completely disappear or were forced to redesign how they deliver food safely.

This led to unused processed and raw food products piling up. French fry processors across North America found their refrigerators packed to the brim as restaurant demand, which accounts for around 70 per cent of their market, evaporated. In some cases, farmers started destroying crops in the fields or throwing potatoes out, farmers who were able to do so gave away what they could.

It hasn’t all been doom and gloom though. People are cooking more at home and therefore eating more fresh potatoes. I have lots of friends who have told me how much their cooking skills have improved. Most of them used to moan about not knowing how to cook. As people have discovered the joy of cooking, they’re branching out into new recipes and are learning new ways to prepare potatoes. This at home cooking trend could continue past the pandemic.

There’s also hope those disconnected from farms will have a new appreciation for agriculture and the food supply system. For years people have taken it for granted how easy it is to obtain the food they want and enjoy. The pandemic has shown us all how easy it is for that freedom to be taken away.

For myself it has made me rethink about what I know about food supply and processing. Growing up on a farm I firsthand saw raw product, but the processing side was a mystery to me as all our grain and beef would leave the farm on trucks to be processed. I knew what the processed end product looked like though from the grocery store.

I’ve covered agriculture for years now as a reporter and over time processing has become less of a mystery. But as I said at the start of this column, I was still shocked when the pandemic led to crops being destroyed and fries piling up.

I’ve learned the whole industry is more closely connected than we realize, and we all need each other in order to function correctly. We need farmers to grow the raw product, healthy and safe workers to process the product, restaurants to cook and serve it, and grocery stores to sell it. If a small problem occurs at even one of these steps, we’re all going to suffer.

Food is something we all need, and we all need to support the safe supply of food from field to plate.