The year 2021 was certainly another challenging one for most of us. It was also incredibly difficult for people in the food industry, from farmgate to plate.
Most headlines related to the food industry had to do with problems and issues related to supply chains, labour, and forced closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks and many other operational entanglements.
But we also need to celebrate what the food industry has accomplished this year. As they did last year, producers, processors, grocers and restaurants have kept us food secure. This was no small feat, given how complicated and prolonged this pandemic has become.
While 2020 showed us how our food supply chains can be resilient, this year unsurprisingly showed us that our food supply chain can also experience fatigue. This was to be expected, as we reach the end of the second year of the pandemic.
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Despite some ruptures, container shortages, natural disasters and the Suez Canal impasse, our food supply chain kept going, and we should expect the same in 2022.
To reflect on what has happened over the last 12 months, here’s a list of the most intriguing and unexpected food-related news stories we saw in 2021.
10) The Suez Canal obstruction
We don’t think of canals very often, but the pandemic has made us all more acutely aware of how global food distribution works or how bottlenecks can become a problem virtually overnight.
When the Ever Given – one of the largest container ships in the world at 400 metres long – blocked the Suez Canal in March, the entire world was focused on that one ship for six days.
According to estimates, the incident cost about US$400 million an hour. But the impact on Canada’s food systems was minimal.
The latest Tim Hortons marketing campaign surprised a few industry observers. The iconic Canadian chain is licking its lips for having sniffed out a deal by asking Justin Bieber, a Canadian mega-star, to create three new flavours for its smaller donuts, Timbits.
The success of the campaign will bring in a legion of sorely needed younger customers. It was a unique approach for Restaurant Brands International. After a slew of major mishaps after acquiring Tim Hortons a few years ago, the holding company is finally showing signs of understanding the chain’s roots.
8) Retail code of conduct
Many consumers can’t appreciate how much grocers overpower food manufacturers and suppliers in our country. Some countries – like Australia and the United Kingdom – faced similar issues and produced a code of conduct to stop grocers from bullying the rest of the supply chain by charging unjustified fees and implementing unreasonable transactional terms.
This year saw the creation of a federal code-of-conduct committee co-chaired by Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Quebec Agriculture Minister André Lamontagne.
A code could help deal with our food inflation challenges and reduce the possibilities of collusion. Although progress has been slow, creating a committee was particularly good news.
7) Weston Bakeries sold
One of the largest bakeries in the country, which was caught in the bread-price-fixing scandal that lasted 13 years, was finally sold by Loblaw Companies to another Canadian company.
With this deal, the bakery sector became even more consolidated in our country. And Loblaws is now very much focused on food distribution.
But with more consolidation could come higher bread prices. It should be interesting.
6) Running out of turkeys
The words “food shortage” were thrown around constantly in 2021, as in 2020. Most consumers are now accustomed to periodically seeing empty grocery shelves, and most of us have adjusted our expectations.
But the most ridiculous story was about turkeys. Canada just can’t run out of turkeys since the commodity is supply-managed. Stocks can be low in parts of the country, but that would be it.
5) Canadian Dairy Commission’s record recommendation
Few Canadians are familiar with the Canadian Dairy Commission, a Crown corporation responsible for ensuring dairy farmers make a decent living in Canada.
The commission calculates how much dairy farmers should get for their milk every year. When it released its recommendations for 2022, many were shocked to learn it was recommending an 8.4 per cent increase for milk and 12.4 per cent for butterfat, probably due to the palm oil scandal that happened in March.
These rate increases are the highest in more than 50 years. Canadians should expect their trip to the dairy section at the grocery store to get more expensive in 2022.
4) P.E.I. potatoes and science
Two farms in Prince Edward Island discovered a contagious wart on potatoes. Despite scientific protocols implemented by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canada imposed an embargo on Island potatoes going to the United States.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau claimed that the United States would have issued a nationwide embargo if nothing had been done.
Speculation suggests trade related to electric vehicles had more to do with the misfortunes of our potato producers. This year reminded us, yet again, that science always takes a back seat to trade politics.
3) Rise of the food worker
As we saw in 2020, food workers received even more public sympathy and became more political in 2021. Many food manufacturers in Canada and elsewhere offered substantial wage increases and better benefits to their employees to either avoid or end labour disputes.
Nabisco’s labour dispute even attracted the attention of well-known Hollywood actor Danny DeVito to advocate for workers, probably a first.
In Canada, Olymel, Exceldor, Cargill and others are now offering higher wages and even signing bonuses to make the sector more attractive.
But this push will also lead to more automation, which will continue into 2022.
2) Heat dome and atmospheric rivers
Every year, Mother Nature has a way of reminding us of who’s in charge. But this year brought more than its share of dramatic climate events.
On June 29, the temperature in Lytton, B.C., reached 49.6C, the highest temperature on record in Canada. In November, the Fraser Valley and many other parts of British Columbia were devastated by atmospheric rivers – a large, narrow stream of water vapour that travels through the sky – which destroyed livestock, fields of crops, roads and railways.
The year 2021 is yet another reminder that our food systems are highly vulnerable to climate change.
1) Food inflation
Food inflation was the obvious topic to select as the number one food-related news story this year. It was over four per cent by September and we expect another challenging year in 2022, according to Canada’s Food Price Report.
Higher input costs, global supply chain woes and labour challenges are mostly responsible for what’s happening across the globe and in Canada. Food prices should go up but wages aren’t following to support Canadian families.
According to the United Nations, Canada was ranked 18th in the world in terms of food affordability. Now it’s ranked 24th and could drop even further in 2022. Food bank traffic will continue to grow.
Last year’s top story was the panic buying we saw in 2020. It could always happen again, but we should be grateful it didn’t occur in 2021. We should remain thankful for what the food industry is doing for all of us, every day, one miracle at a time.
Happy New Year.
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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