Time is of the essence to protect Canada's food supply

Food supply disrupted?

If you have a garden, you might be one of the lucky ones by the time fall 2020 rolls around.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted virtually every aspect of our lives, including our food supply. Grocery store shelves are empty of some items, with some shopper perceiving prices creeping up – despite assurances from grocery chains that they are doing all they can to keep them down.

"Even at Walmart and Superstore I see prices for some items rising," said West Kelowna resident Vital Bellieveau in a call to Castanet News.

Now farmers and the BC Fruit Growers' Association are wondering what will happen if temporary foreign workers and backpackers, primarily from Quebec, don't show up this season.

Temporary foreign farm workers may have been exempted from COVID-19 border closures, but many farms tell Castanet they are scrambling to find help. 

Brett Schuyler owns Schuyler farms in Ontario, and he says they typically have 55 temporary foreign workers by this time of year. But as of now he only has seven, and "spring doesn't care about the pandemic." 

Farmers across the country are having to make some tough decisions, and Schuyler says some may simply decide not to plant crops this year.

"Some of the vegetable farmers I know are saying why bother? You don't want to start planting crops and then not be able to harvest it."

Glen Lucas, general Manager at BC Fruit Growers' Association, says he's hopeful that the 4,500 temporary foreign workers that help keep Okanagan farm businesses going will eventually get here, but time is of the essence.

"Right now, a Canadian traveller can't go into Quebec, and we're worried that those workers who would normally come to the Okanagan for seasonal work won't this year for fear of not being let back into their home province."

Other countries like Mexico and some Caribbean countries remain undecided if they will allow their residents to travel to Canada. There are also Central American workers who have been coming to Canada for many years who don't want to come here because of Canada's comparatively high number of COVID-19 cases.

Lucas says even if things work out, farmers in the Okanagan are already behind, "immediately even if we got exactly the same number (of TFW's) we're behind."

Without labour soon, yields could fall, causing a domino effect that would disrupt the local food supply. Hiring Canadian workers has not worked in the past and without a major shift likely won't work this year. 

Schuyler is expecting 28 seasonal workers from Jamaica but will have to quarantine them for 14-days and train them.

"Some of our workers from Mexico have been with us for more than 20 years. They're more than workers, they run the farm and we need them."

The revelation that an outbreak of COVID-19 occurred involving temporary foreign workers at a plant nursery in West Kelowna has put these workers and their importance to Canada's food supply in the spotlight.

"Growers can't afford to increase salaries unless there's a big increase in what they receive for their crops, which has not happened in the past," says Lucas.

In spite of that Lucas says, anyone in B.C. interested in working right now should check local job boards, especially when we're closer to harvest season.

Schuyler says, "right now I'm hearing that many of the workers I typically deal with would rather work and provide for their families and take their chances with COVID-19," but like so many other things that could change drastically in the coming weeks.

A revised edition of the Canada Food Price Report has been released by Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph. It is holding fast to a food price increase of no more than four per cent.

"Considering the current COVID-19 crisis, and based on our latest analysis, we do not believe the overall forecast for food prices in 2020 will change," according to the report. However it does say, "the food retail and processing sectors are under extreme pressure to change food safety practices, to make customers feel safer. These new protocols will require more work and more staff."

An oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, is already impacting some food prices in some categories and the report also suggests that online purchases and delivery "will likely increase the cost of food over time."

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