Dairy sector ready for second wave of COVID-19
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic gathers steam in Canada, the nation’s food supply chain - and the dairy sector in particular - is much better prepared to handle new rounds of upheaval than six months ago.
That’s the conclusion of panelists who took part in a webinar on Ontario dairy sector resilience hosted by Dairy at Guelph and Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC) on October 1.
And the despite some early disruptions caused by the pandemic, the dairy sector actually came through the first wave relatively well.
“The system worked really well here; that’s not just dairy, that’s the entire food system - we did see some issues in March where we had shortages in grocery stores but we recovered from those short term disruptions relatively quickly,” said Dr. Mike von Massow, Associate Professor in the University of Guelph’s Department of Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics.
“To say that we had issues is honest, but to say that a crisis caused confidence in the system to go away is inaccurate; in fact, Canadians feel really good about food system and how it responded. We have enhanced the trust and reinforced the resiliency in our supply chain,” he added.
The most significant cause of the disruption was the abrupt and almost immediate closure of most restaurants, while at the same time, demand at retail was skyrocketing as consumers stayed home - and to some extent, hoarded.
That left product destined for food service outlets with no place to go while grocery stores were forced to limit purchases of some items, including dairy products. For dairy farmers, that meant short term dumping of milk until the supply chain could readjust.
According to Cheryl Smith, CEO of Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), milk disposal was limited to a few days and affected only a fraction of a percent of total production in the province. And after four decades of per capita fluid milk consumption decline, the pandemic has led to a significant increase in retail dairy purchases.
“We are now 26 weeks into this and we’re at almost double digit growth (at retail) for milk,” she noted. “Consumers didn’t just panic buy, they are consuming dairy at home at an extremely high rate.”
Food service sales, however, have fallen sharply and recovery may be slowed in that sector as winter weather hampers outdoor eating and rising case numbers restrict indoor dining.
Both von Massow and Smith credit the supply management system with helping the dairy industry react relatively quickly and nimbly to the shift in demand.
“When we think about the resilience of dairy, this is a time for us in Ontario and all Canadians to be extremely proud of the unique system we have,” Smith said. “We know we can deal with things in an organized, fair way through our system and that collaboration is key.”
Veterinarian Dr. Kelly Barratt of Heartland Veterinary Clinic in Listowel said that on the surface, not much changed as a result of the pandemic as the clinic stayed open as an essential service throughout the spring lockdown.
However, behind the scenes, the running of the clinic and how services are provided have changed, from no longer permitting clients into the clinics to wearing masks and making appointments before going on-farm.
“The efficiency of our work has suffered because it takes us longer to do things, but we’ve adapted,” she said. “We talk to clients a lot more to understand their level of risk aversion about us coming to the farm and we do our best to keep people safe. We are used to talking about farm and animal biosecurity; now we’ve added the human element.”
Mental health is one aspect that also needs to be top of mind, she noted. The pandemic has brought new stresses and uncertainties and people are encouraged to slow down when they can and to understand it’s “ok not to be ok.”
Many past disease crises have challenged the world to become a better place, such as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic that ultimately led to centralized public health care, said dairy farmer and DFO board member Bonnie Den Haan.
The COVID-19 pandemic, too, will drive change across society, and she sees the role of government, academia, and policymakers as one of sharing and collaboration to inspire innovation. This has already led to ground-breaking changes in vaccine development as scientists and organizations around the world race to find a permanent solution to COVID-19, and more change is likely to come.
“Canadians expect a better environment in the future and our industry will continue to work on that,” she said. “The pandemic is a stark reminder that economic, social and environmental sustainability are all inextricably linked.”
On the farm itself, little has changed beyond delay of audits or classification, she added, and thanks to supply management, costs have been shared among producers without the need for government assistance.
“What is missing are social activities and farmers need these to get off the farm and reduce stress,” she said.
Any supply chain challenges stemming from the second wave of the pandemic will be less abrupt and with more consumer confidence in the system, surprises are less likely, said von Massow.
“We have lots of choice when it comes to purchase locations, stores have done a good job, infrastructure is better,” he said. “Restaurants may get worse before they get better, so there may be a demand shift again as we adjust, but we understand the changes now and it will be less of a surprise.”
Longer term, COVID-19 may well become something society has to live with rather than something that will go away, predicted LRIC CEO Mike McMorris. And as governments struggle with ballooning deficits as one of the key legacies of the pandemic, he warned this will have a direct impact on agriculture.
“Governments have all taken actions that only months ago would have seemed unthinkable and they will have large deficits for a long time to come,” he said. “There will be less government appetite to provide ag recovery funds, and so we should expect them to be limited to sectors and people who have taken every step possible to mitigate and prevent disasters.”
“A typical final act of health emergencies is global amnesia, when we forget all that we just learned. We need to remember and also realize that the best way to know the future is to create it,” he stated, making five predictions for livestock production in the post-COVID era.
- Fewer people. Labour was already an issue before but expect more automation in the system and the industry will have to work harder to attract and keep employees.
- Artificial Intelligence becomes real. Paired with artificial intelligence, data is a gold mine. To date, progress on its use has been limited due to issues of trust, ease of use, infrastructure, and cost.
- More collaboration across sectors. More challenges need a cross-sectoral approach through groups like LRIC, Ontario Livestock and Poultry Council or Farm & Food Care Ontario. Foreign Animal Disease response is one such area. The estimated cost of a Foot and Mouth outbreak in Canada is estimated at $65 billion, making the need to develop and continuously test a cross-sectoral prevention and response plan critical.
- Greater link to human health. Every human on earth is living a shared experience right now and has some knowledge of and opinions o zoonotic diseases and virus spread. The One Health approach that looks at diseases from an integrated human and animal perspective will gain prominence in agriculture.
- More accountability. One legacy of COVID will be how Canada cares for seniors and even with stretched budgets, governments will need to address this, leaving fewer funds for other priorities. Programs like proAction® will simply be the norm.
This article was published in Ontario Dairy Farmer, November 2020. It is provided by Livestock Research Innovation Corporation as part of LRIC’s ongoing efforts to report on Canadian livestock research developments and outcomes.