Canada’s meat-and-potato problem: Coronavirus pandemic hits the food supply chain

Canada’s potato industry joins a growing number of food sectors that finds itself in crisis, a crisis sparked by the near elimination of demand for french fries.

Global News has learned that the Canadian Potato Council, which represents 1,000 potato growers across the country, sent a letter Thursday to Agriculture and Agri-food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau requesting “urgent required interventions” that the council says are vital to protect the potato industry and food security in Canada.

The problem for potato growers is too many potatoes grown to end up being served as french fries in restaurants that are now closed or only offering take-out.

And while Canada’s food supply chain now has to deal with too many potatoes, it may soon struggle with not enough beef, pork and, possibly, seafood.

Bibeau, along with many other experts, has cautioned that Canada is not about to run out of food, though she and others have acknowledged that these supply chain problems could result in higher prices and potential shortages of some specific products.

Meat-packing plants in Alberta and Ontario responsible for a substantial portion of Canada’s beef are shut or running reduced lines as they grapple with COVID-19 outbreaks.

A pork processing plant in Breslau, Ont., that accounts for about one-third of the federally inspected pork produced in Ontario will shut Monday for a week — also due to COVID-19.

And now, those who harvest fish and shellfish are worried they will not be able to maintain production because of COVID-19 safety requirements as well as the drop in demand from the food service industry.

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“Harvesters are certainly interested in fishing but they’ve got to do it safely and right now they’re really unsure it can be profitable at all now,” said Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers, a union that represents 15,000 fishery workers in Newfoundland and Labrador. Sullivan spoke to Global News from his home in Bay Bulls, N.L.

NDP MP Gord Johns said the federal government should institute a “Canada Purchase Program” to essentially become the buyer of last resort for fish, seafood and other agricultural products where demand has fallen off.

The federal government has already instituted several measures to support Canada’s agri-food sector, including providing a cash injection of $5-billion to Farm Credit Canada which the government says has allowed thousands of producers to defer their loans.

“Our government is working with provinces and territories, to support our producers and ensure Canadians continue to have access to high quality food on their grocery store shelves and kitchen tables,” Bibeau said in a statement provided to Global News Sunday. “We understand that agriculture groups have specific needs and asks right now and we are actively exploring additional ways to support them.”

A “Canada Purchase Program” or equivalent is among the measures the Canada Potato Council is pushing. The council is also asking for specific help for potato seed growers as well as some regulatory and other changes to existing agricultural support programs.

Canada’s potato farmers grew about 4.8 million tonnes of potatoes in 2019 worth a combined $1.3 billion. Most of that crop — about two-thirds — ends up at processing plants that turn those spuds into french fries, hash browns and other frozen potato markets. Processors, like McCain’s or Cavendish Farms, send the vast bulk of their product to restaurants.

But with restaurants either shut or limited to take-out, the demand for frozen potato products has all but disappeared.

With their freezers full of french fries, processors are not buying any more fresh potatoes.

As a result, Canada’s potato producers have about one-quarter of last year’s crop — about 1.4 million tonnes worth as much as $320-million — still in storage on the farm that no one wants to buy.

Pat Owen, who grows potatoes near Carman, Man., is one of those farmers. He has 19 million pounds in storage that should have been turned into french fries.

“It’s huge,” Owen said in an interview Sunday. “To our operation, it’ll be over half our gross income, close to $2 million that is not realized.”

Meanwhile,  potato farmers would normally be planting the 2020 crop about now, in early spring. But with uncertain demand conditions, many farmers are likely to radically revise their planting plans.

“We’re going to plant probably 15 per cent less already. That’s what the processors have told us to do,” Owen said. “But there’s no guarantee that if the economy doesn’t turn around, we’ll be able to sell next year’s crop.”

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