As international supply chains heal from the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, agriculture industry players say the pandemic has increased demand for locally grown food.
Local is in, Dalhousie University's Sylvain Charlebois said, for both Canadian consumers and producers.
“Based on some of the figures I've seen, it's costing almost three times as much as last year to move anything around in the world,” said the director of Dalhousie's Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “That has made nearshoring or onshoring much more attractive,” he said during an interview.
"It makes local procurement more competitive because you don't have to buy things that are miles away and then pay a hefty price to get that product into your own market."
The Lab's 11th edition of Canada's Food Price Report found that the COVID-19 pandemic “has sparked renewed interest in local food supply chains, food autonomy and whether there are possibilities for viable local alternatives in food supply chains.”
Respondents to the report said they were shopping locally to support smaller businesses, but also to access supply chains that were less susceptible to border closures, trade disputes and labour shortages.
Stan Vander Waal, president of the British Columbia Agriculture Council, said farmers in that province have seen consumers buy locally as a form of food security. Meanwhile, larger distributors are buying local to meet that demand and secure their supply chains.
At the beginning of the pandemic, “different sectors dealt with a lot of turmoil because the whole restaurant industry pretty much fell off the cliff at that point,” he said. That changed, however, when restaurants moved to a takeout model a few months after the pandemic began and demand rose quickly afterwards.
A flower grower by trade, Vander Waal also saw demand for flowers and plants shoot up as people prepared to "entertain themselves" for their life at home. Canadian consumers also took to more home cooking, which boosted protein demand.
In Central Canada, Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan said that while international demand for products remained relatively steady during the pandemic, domestic household demand rose. Like Vander Waal, Lewis attributed the growth to rose support for local farmers.
“Canadian consumers have done a good job of buying local and supporting Canadian agriculture,” Lewis said. “It's a symbiotic relationship. We need to have Canadian consumers support Canadian producers and they've done that.”
An October report from Dalhousie's Agri-Food Analytics Lab on consumer habits and perceptions in Nova Scotia found that 95.6 per cent of respondents reported shopping at farmers markets in the last year.
When the pandemic hit, the demand profile for food products shifted as restaurants were forced to close and consumers cooked more meals at home, and Canadian farmers were able to adapt to the associated challenges, Lewis said.
According to Michael Young, president of industry association Canada Beef, the trend toward buying local was on the rise before the pandemic began, but the past year and a half has further elevated that interest.
“We've seen an increased focus of folks really wanting to support their local supply chains,” Young said in an interview.
The next challenge producers face comes as the country's restaurant and hospitality industry comes back online and buying habits begin to normalize.
“As the economy reopens, there'll be another shift in demand to different products in what we've been supplying,” said Lewis.
Another challenge moving forward for Canadian producers will be keeping up the momentum they've been able to create during the pandemic, said Young.
“It's a global tragedy, of course, but it did present an opportunity to the beef sector when Canadians essentially voted with their stomachs to maintain their beef consumption,” he said. "The demand is there. The domestic market is our most important market.”