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Sylvain CharleboisCanadians have likely never heard more about supply chains than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions about logistics and how food gets to restaurants, grocery stores and kitchens abound.

Canadians aren’t just genuinely interested in supply chains, they’re also commending the people involved in making our food systems work, from farm to fork. That’s outstanding.

But the journey hasn’t been perfect. Empty shelves, store lineups and long cues when ordering food online have made some people nervous.

So the B.C. government recently gave itself the authority to take over supply chains for delivering essential goods and services throughout the province. In other words, the province believes it can do a better job at logistics than companies such as Costco, Amazon and Walmart.

This could become a problem for Canada’s food security if little or no national or international oversight is provided.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, everyone in the public and private spheres have repeatedly acknowledged that these are unprecedented times. Governments have taken steps to manage public health risks the best they can. For the most part, their work has been amazing.

But bureaucrats aren’t qualified to fully understand supply chains, especially under these circumstances. When someone isn’t involved with the mechanics of supply chains daily, blind spots can be overwhelming for the uneducated eye.

Most of those in government are inundated with the complex pandemic challenges caused by COVID-19. They certainly don’t have capacity to fully take on supply chains.

Regardless, B.C.’s move isn’t surprising. Empty shelves were seen in many places, including grocery stores, likely prompting the government to act.

Many experts say panic-buying and hoarding occurred largely due to the psychological effect of seeing an entire globe dealing with a pandemic. Unusual sights like empty shelves, long lineups and masks on people’s faces prompted many to fear the worst – believing the country was running out of food and products.

Also contributing to this massive hysteria is the fact most Canadians have lost the art of food and menu planning. Convenience dictates most facets of our daily lives, so many Canadians have no idea how to plan for food. Most mornings, many Canadians have no clue what they will eat for dinner that evening, let alone over the next one or two weeks.

The inability of many to appreciate what two weeks’ worth of food looks like influences behaviour in a grocery store, especially in times of crisis.

But Canadians, by virtue of our new isolation reality, are slowly learning. Consumers are walking into grocery stores with acute awareness of the need for disciplined buying and civic responsibility. So the worst is likely behind us.

However, a province opting to control supply chains will raise concerns about local patchwork or competing government-controlled supply chains.

Some supply chains are already public, which can lead to conflicting priorities. Few goods flow simply within a province. National and, most desirably, international co-ordination is critical. B.C. unilaterally adopting such a policy could be detrimental to the true optimization of supply chains.

And it could set a terrible precedent. Alberta, Ontario and Quebec could be next.

A case can be made for controlling the supply chains of medical equipment and sanitary products, but food distribution requires the private sector to play a central role in creating a sound equilibrium between supply and demand.

If all provinces and states opt to do the same thing, national and international co-ordination is possible, but will require the support and expertise of the private sector.

Many food distribution companies have developed efficient logistical models, despite international borders. Companies where the core competencies are supply chains and logistics have been able to transcend borders to better serve markets all over the world.

Government can learn a thing or two about supply chain management from the private sector, as it tries to focus on serving the public.

Dr. 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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