Food supply chain resilience put to the test by B.C. floods

Testing food supply chain

Images from British Columbia over the past week have been heartbreaking: human casualties, dairy cows barely breathing above water before being pulled to safety, the loss of livestock across the Fraser Valley. Just devastating.

And the flow of goods on rail and roads is severely compromised.

Many now claim that flash floods and atmospheric rivers in B.C. were highly predictable due to nature’s occasional destructive wrath. But supply chains in Western Canada have always been vulnerable and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

In Central and Eastern Canada, the importance of supply chains has often been under-appreciated by the public. Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces have been spoiled by the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Access to supplies has been easy and we’ve forgotten the seaway’s logistical genius. Food from Europe, the Middle East and beyond has just floated up the seaway for decades, inexpensively servicing the founding provinces of our country. In a Europe-centric global economy, it made sense to rely on Halifax and Montreal.

In Western Canada, business with Asia has only grown over the years. The Port of Vancouver, which is close to where half the world lives, sees over $12 billion worth of agri-food products and commodities moving in and out yearly. That’s $35 million a day.

In the fall, commodities grown in the Prairies are Asia-bound, so the B.C. disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for farmers across the country. The weak harvest this year gave them little to sell. And much of those products are now stuck on trains, stranded in the Rockies.

Building an equivalent to the St. Lawrence Seaway in the West has been an issue since our nation’s creation, but especially in the last 20 to 30 years. And not building better gateways and corridors has made the Western Canadian agri-food economy more vulnerable, especially with climate change.

With the globalization of trade, this vulnerability is now far-reaching. And the B.C. floods have reminded us that we’re always one natural disaster away from seeing major bottlenecks.

But given the region’s topography, it’s going to be challenging to develop new options and build supply chain resiliency. Trading through the United States is one option, but bureaucratic compliances and protocols would need to be worked out.

We need to secure the few options we have across the Rockies into Vancouver and/or Prince Rupert, which is now the third busiest port in Canada after Vancouver and Montreal. Maintaining these routes and making sure they’re secure will require massive investment. It should have happened years ago.

Beyond trade, the B.C. situation will generate food access issues in the region. We will see shortages of certain products, either because the production of commodities like milk, eggs and poultry has been severely hampered, or because products can’t get into the Vancouver area.

The Fraser Valley is the breadbasket of the province. Farmers’ boards will need to work with other provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and beyond to provide needed help.

The rest of Canada should expect sporadic shortages of food products that would have come from Vancouver, but this won’t bring any markets in Canada even close to food insecurity. We just need to adjust our expectations, as we were doing due to supply chain disruptions even before the B.C. floods.

Climate skeptics will argue relentlessly that bizarre and extreme weather events have been happening for centuries. After the heat dome and wildfires last summer and now the floods, if you’re still a skeptic, you’re simply not paying attention.

The true backbone of our agri-food system is the supply chain, and we need to take care of it.

The average Canadian doesn’t see or interact with any element of the supply chain. It’s invisible but it’s always working. We need to have faith that our resilient food industry will continue to deliver.

But governments can’t take care of our logistical network in Western Canada on faith alone.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.


Support for vaccine passports remains high amongst Canadians

Vax passport support

Six months ago, when Canadians still harboured doubts about the federal government’s ability to vaccinate every adult resident of the country against COVID-19, Research Co. and Glacier Media started to track perceptions on vaccine passports.

At the time, the concept was especially popular for large gatherings, and only a tiny majority of residents (52%) favoured its appearance in the workplace.

In September, support for relying on these proof-of-vaccination certificates in offices climbed to 63% across the country. In this month’s survey, just over two-thirds of Canadians (67%) think it would be a “very good” or “good” idea to use vaccine passports to allow people to return to their usual workplace.

Some Canadians are already showing their vaccine passport in order to carry on with their labours, especially those who come into close contact with others. The notion of a workplace where everybody has been inoculated against COVID-19 is particularly well received by Canadians aged 55 and over (77%), but is also endorsed by majorities of those aged 35 to 54 (66%) and those aged 18 to 34 (59%).

Canadian workplaces have already undergone significant modifications as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A safe return to the office would be invaluable to the industries that rely on foot visitors to keep stores open, as well as for providers of coffee, snacks and meals. At this stage, most employees in Canada would not meet the calls for a vaccine passport with dismay, even if they are anxious to cling to the home office.

From a political standpoint, the concept of a vaccine passport for workplaces is not unpalatable for Canadians who supported any one of the four main parties that ran candidates in more than one province during this year’s election. Support for this proposed regulation is highest among Liberal Party supporters (81%), dropping slightly among those who cast ballots for candidates representing the New Democratic Party (NDP) (73%), the Conservative Party (64%) and the Green Party (58%).

The glaring exception, in what has become a profoundly predictable trait of Canadian public opinion research, is the People’s Party. Only 19% of Canadians who voted for this party would welcome a vaccine passport for offices.

Canadians remain firmly in favour of the use of the vaccine passport for other activities. Seven in 10 Canadians (70%) endorse the concept as a precondition of allowing people to go to live concerts as spectators (up two points since September), to go to live sporting events as spectators (up four points) and to visit a gym or fitness facility (up three points). In addition, 69% (up three points) support the use of these documents for people going to the theatre or cinema. As expected, People’s Party voters dislike each one of these plans.

Support is also high among Canadians for requiring vaccine passports in order to travel to other countries (74%, up one point), to travel to other Canadian provinces (70%, up two points) and to travel inside the same province (65%, up three points).

Our own behaviour did not go through a massive shift since September. The vaccination rates are higher every week, and some Canadians are already getting their booster shots. Still, a significant proportion of the country’s residents are not ready to lay down their guard.

We continue to see 70% of Canadians (down one point) acknowledging that they wear a mask every time they go out. Women (74%) and Canadians aged 55 and over (81%) remain the biggest promoters of this course of action, but there are no extreme differences among regions.

At a time when almost two-thirds of Canadians believe that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, we are entering a decidedly different holiday season. Significantly more destinations, stores and venues are readily available for our business than 12 months ago. The vaccine passport, from its inception, was seen by most Canadians as a small but necessary nuisance. As the months have gone by, Canadians have become less skeptical about its use.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from November 8 to November 10, 2021, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Now's not the time for blame about damage from historic flooding

Dig out before digging in

Before blame must come gratitude.

One would think British Columbia would be ready for rain more than anything else. But nothing in anyone’s memory has struck like the rain – and then the wind – in recent days.

How on earth can there be blame? You couldn’t possibly have been prepared for so many roads to close or collapse under the weight of water, for bridges to wash out and cut communities from each other, for trains to topple and bolt-cut the already precious supply chain, for a barge to beach, and for cars and trucks and their waylaid inhabitants to be stuck in the mud.

A severed Coquihalla, a subsumed Malahat, an awash Abbotsford, a saturated Merritt and Princeton, search-and-rescue missions in Agassiz. Traffic choked, cities cornered, the province isolated. It feels like it's. . .everywhere.

Gratitude, then. At least four died near Lillooet. Let’s hope it was no more.

Thousands have rolled up sleeves to help, some of them fearless rescue units and many of them just plugging themselves in where they could be useful. A mayor directing traffic, a pizza place dropping off food to stranded travellers, helicopters to hoist the highway marooned, transport trucks bringing animals to higher ground, neighbours bringing neighbours to evacuation centres or relatives’ homes out of harm’s way.

Countless small and large gestures, evidence of community everywhere.

That innate kindness and selflessness was tapped constantly in the pandemic through the lockdowns, through the horrid discovery of residential school graves, through the forest fires, through the heat dome, through the losses at Lytton, and now through the flooding.

It isn’t as if British Columbia is learning anything new, only applying what it knew all along about empathy and support.

In each case, though, and in due course, a sensible consequence is to explore how institutions responded to ensure anything that faltered might not be repeated. There are bound to be questions about why the weekend went by and there was not in British Columbia the same alarm rung that there was in adjacent Alberta and Washington.

Might more people have had adequate time to arrange themselves to leave their homes, particularly if expert advice would be warning of what appeared ahead? Might fewer people have taken routine trips that would send their lives into chaos and fear? Might there have been rail lines and highways closed to wait out the effects instead of wading into them?

Clearly some municipalities have not kept pace with infrastructural needs or in a couple of cases situated crucial facilities where they wouldn’t be ineffectual in disaster. Even the wisest engineers and prescient politicians don’t often plan for the worst-case scenario.

The economic effects will knock on for a long time from this long weekend of precipitation, whether it’s another layer of inflation, another bout of insurance premium hikes or another raft of empty supermarket shelves or escalating prices at the pumps.

These one-in-a-100-year events have landed with the coincidence of a slot machine jackpot upon us (we haven't had the big earthquake, yet) and just as the pandemic created a new abnormal, so does climate change. There are already clamours for communities to more seriously address the climate emergency, but these global issues can’t be contended with at a municipal level. Senior government with big money spread across a nation offers the most intelligent scale to tackle the challenge. Mind you, even the greatest effort won’t roll back the clock, so we ought to expect more atmospheric rivers, heat domes, fierce winds, frigid storms, too much and too little water within weeks of each other.

But that’s for another day. Today is for appreciation. Let's dig out before digging in. It’s not called Beautiful British Columbia only for the scenery.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

Theft from grocery stores is a growing, and troubling , problem

Grocery store theft

Shoplifting has been on the rise in Canadian supermarkets in recent months. And that ultimately costs us all.

Concrete data on theft in grocery stores is difficult to get since incidents are typically underreported. Managers tend to take matters into their own hands. But with the increasing number of reports of theft, and security guards stationed inside and outside grocery stores, things are likely more complicated than we’re aware of.

Speaking with various retailers in Montreal, Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver – even those in the heart of neighbourhoods where crime rates are typically lower than average – thefts are a new cause for concern.

According to anecdotal estimates, the number of thefts has increased by 25 to 40 per cent in just the last six months. A mid-sized grocery store can easily catch 10 to 12 shoplifters a week.

The cost of living and the price of food are enticing some people to find other ways to obtain supplies.

The most coveted items in supermarkets include meat, such as ground beef, steaks, sausages and roasts, as well as cheeses, spices and over-the-counter medicines. Energy drinks and alcohol are also targets in provinces where beer, wine and spirits are sold in grocery stores.

Some people can steal up to $300 worth of products from multiple locations in a single day.

In addition, some employees may act as accomplices in internal thefts, either in the warehouse or at the back of the store before the products are even put out on the shelves.

On average, in Canada, every grocery store loses $3,000 to $4,000 worth in stolen groceries per week. For every 500 supermarkets that open their doors every morning in Canada, the food in the equivalent of nine will be free that day due to theft. That’s a lot of food, and the associated costs are a huge problem for retailers.

Some merchants go to great lengths to prevent theft. Aside from the addition of security cameras and door people, hiring security guards also seems to pay off. Plainclothes mystery shoppers roam the aisles to catch thieves in the act. Although expensive, this strategy works well.

These offenders don’t have a typical profile – they come from all age groups and backgrounds. That makes catching them more difficult.

In Canada, according to some crime experts, about half of all those charged have no criminal record. First offenders are often well-educated, come from well-off families, hold stable positions and enjoy a good reputation. Many are just down on their luck.

Obviously, self-service checkouts can facilitate theft. It should therefore come as no surprise that surveillance has been added around these areas. With profit margins declining to nearly one per cent, the profitability of stores depends a great deal on increased surveillance to minimize theft.

The great majority who follow the rules must pay extra for food due to shoplifting. For merchants to cover their costs, all consumers pay a premium of approximately about 2.5 per cent for shoplifting and internal theft. However, online shopping makes theft impossible.

Since the start of the pandemic, e-commerce for food has exploded. Canadians now buy more than $5 billion in food a year online. These sales are obviously safe from any temptation to take products and leave without paying. Grocers know this and want to encourage online shopping to lower their risk.

Meanwhile, food inflation is providing unpredictable shocks in stores, and the situation could deteriorate in coming months. That means merchants will have to double their vigilance.

It should come as no surprise that some retailers are using new methods to deter in-store delinquency.

The very first self-service grocery store opened in 1916 in Memphis, Tenn., under the name Piggly Wiggly. Previously, customers presented their shopping lists to employees, who collected the merchandise from the store shelves. Then the Piggly Wiggly founder had a revolutionary idea: allow customers to serve themselves.

Since then, we’ve been able to visit stores, see the products and place them in our basket. For the sake of our grocers, this privilege shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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