Food supply chain hangovers due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have resulted in questions about the global nature of our food systems.
Some suggest we need to deglobalize and refocus our energy on making most economies around the world food sovereign, including Canada’s.
Given what the world is about to face this year, with major famine as millions experience acute hunger, it’s hard to argue against such a claim. But global trade over the years, especially for Canada, has been nothing short of a godsend and brushing any of it to the side would be to our detriment.
We should be clear on one fundamental reality: The world is still all about the United States and China. Everyone else adjusts along the way, including Canada. Thirty-five per cent of China’s exports go to the United States, and China is also America’s leading customer.
So Canada matters very little in the grand scheme of things, at least right now. Still, the world is in deep trouble.
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About 15 per cent of all calories on Earth come from wheat, with corn covering a lot of calorific ground as well. With Ukraine out of the supply mix, coupled with sanctions against Russia, the global wheat deficit this year will be a significant challenge given that 25 per cent of grain exports come from that region. We’re going to be short on wheat, corn, barley and many other commodities.
By the time we’re done with 2022, it’s likely that more than 100 million additional people will experience either famine or acute hunger, something the world has never seen before.
The planet operates under a 90-day production cycle of agricultural commodities. Canada’s contribution, along with the U.S. and parts of Europe, occurs in the fall.
With U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent ethanol mandate, almost 40 per cent of the U.S. corn crop is used for ethanol, not food. In Canada, it’s about 10 per cent. The food-for-fuel obsession is back, despite the looming crisis.
Canada will be fine when it comes to food access, but food will become more expensive. Poor nations always lose access to their food supply first, while richer nations like Canada will secure food supplies by paying more. Poor countries have no capacity to store calories at all.
Germany, typically a big buyer of Ukrainian commodities, stated that retail food prices could increase by as much as 50 per cent this year. Commodity traders are already buying and even hoarding what they can get to secure supplies needed for the next several months.
China is basically the only nation that could bridge the calorie gap. China’s significance in all of this can’t be underscored enough.
Of some of the challenges we face, fertilizer access is certainly key. These critical inputs for farmers cost on average about US$1,500 a tonne, five times the cost 12 months ago. Farmers need fertilizers to produce crops, but the market is controlled by a handful of multinational companies –some of them are in Canada – that supply-manage their products to artificially boost prices. This needs to stop.
We’re also paying for years of bashing generic engineering in the media by groups that have used fear to put forward an organic-centric diet for affluent city dwellers.
Additionally, groups have recklessly lobbied city councils and provincial governments to ban the use of chemicals that make agriculture more cost-effective. The approval process for new traits for new crops can take years in many developed countries, including Canada.
Agriculture is and will always be about technologies. Those foolish fanatics who are anti-genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will have to accept that.
And now, many people are talking about deglobalizing our food economy. Deglobalization occurs when the economic interdependence between nations declines.
For Canada, this would be a problem. Canada is one of the largest countries in the world in terms of land, with fewer than 39 million people. Deglobalization essentially means Canadians will face a reduction in their standard of living. Almost 60 per cent of our wealth comes from trade. Trade also makes our food more diverse and affordable. But this doesn’t mean our approach to trade doesn’t need fixing – it certainly does.
High-functioning food systems aren’t immune to destructive forces like climate change or a global pandemic. We know that. Tyrants like Russian President Vladimir Putin can only make matters worse.
A new globalization agenda would require that nations adhere to acceptable humanitarian conduct to participate in a global economy.
Nations would also need to ensure farmers aren’t held hostage by the powerful companies controlling the fertilizer industry. That needs to change, and Canada can do something about it.
Canada will also need to make our agriculture more efficient and more productive through a solid food autonomy strategy. The only province that has a food autonomy strategy is Quebec.
Canada needs a pathway to produce more food in an open economy, offering us better access and affordable prices while growing our agriculture through trade in a sustainable matter.
A comprehensive strategy would include sustainable water practices and the use of renewable energy to support production. If we do things right in Canada, in a few decades we could end up supplying water-scarce California with food rather than the other way around.
Bold thinking requires an audacious strategy. Canada can do better since we have so much to offer.
Global trade has worked for the betterment of the world. But attaining more resiliency is still a work in progress, whether we like it or not.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
Sylvain is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.
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