COVID-19, Food Insecurity and Related Issues

Revised on 19 May 2020, 9:35 a.m.
Any substantive changes in this HillNote that have been made since the preceding issue are indicated in bold print.

(Disponible en français : COVID-19, insécurité alimentaire et problèmes connexes)

With the arrival of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Canada, Canadians have become concerned about disruptions to their food supply. A March 2020 survey by Abacus Data shows that almost two-thirds of Canadians are worried about rising food prices (65%) and the availability of certain food products (62%). However, there is currently no evidence that the pandemic will result in widespread or long-term food shortages in Canada.

This HillNote provides information on the impact of the pandemic on food insecurity, the food supply chain, food prices and food safety.

Food Insecurity

According to a March 2020 report, at least 4.4 million Canadians were food insecure in 2017-18, meaning that they lacked access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food. Food insecurity is strongly linked to people’s financial ability to access food, both in quantity and quality.

Experts believe that, currently, “skyrocketing unemployment is driving up food insecurity to catastrophic levels.” As people lose their jobs and main sources of income due to closures of non-essential businesses, efforts to control the pandemic may exacerbate existing food security vulnerabilities in Canada. This is particularly concerning since, according to a report by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the unemployment rate could reach 15% by the third quarter of 2020.

Some food banks are anticipating or already experiencing an increased demand. At the same time, food banks face increased pressure since fewer volunteers are available and greater financial and food donations are needed. On 3 April 2020, the Prime Minister announced that $100 million will be provided to food banks and other organizations to support access to food for people experiencing food insecurity as a result of COVID-19. In an open letter, several academics acknowledged the announcement’s timeliness, but stressed that some communities may lack the capacity to fully take advantage of these funds. They also noted that Indigenous communities, which are already disproportionately affected by food insecurity and malnutrition, may need logistical support to maintain a supply of safe, nutritious and traditional food during the pandemic. Other experts argue that food banks and charity are not the solution to food insecurity.

On 14 April 2020, the Prime Minister also announced additional funding for northern communities, including $25 million for the Nutrition North Canada program.

Food Supply Chain

With border and plant closures related to the pandemic, there is concern that the food supply chain is vulnerable. However, long-term shortages are unlikely given the robustness of Canada’s supply chain. Dr. Evan Fraser, a Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security, agrees that panic is unwarranted: “Canada is blessed with a robust infrastructure and sophisticated network of food processors, retailers, and regulators committed to ensuring food continues to arrive in a more or less business as usual fashion.”

At the international level, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that disruptions to food supply chains are minimal so far. The Committee on World Food Security notes in its interim issue paper on COVID-19 that, over the medium and longer terms, disruptions to global supply chains will depend on the duration and severity of the pandemic.

According to Dr. Fraser, the pandemic could lead to debates about globalization and the interdependence of global food systems. There could be a push for more locally and regionally-based food production. The current situation has also drawn attention to the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector’s dependence on temporary foreign workers as labourers for both food production and processing. Such workers are exempt from international entry restrictions related to COVID-19, under certain conditions involving self-isolation upon entry. The government announced that $50 million will be provided to farmers, fish harvesters and production and processing employers to ensure compliance with the 14-day isolation of foreign workers arriving to Canada.

The COVID-19 pandemic also raises questions about our “just enough, just in time” food system. This system minimizes stocks of food so that stores have just enough food, just in time to sell it. This model is convenient and allows for cost savings, but it is less resilient to shocks or distribution disruptions. Our food system produces more than enough food, but when people panic buy and demand increases by up to 500%, it takes longer to restock the shelves.

On 5 May 2020, the Prime Minister announced $252 million to support food producers and processors. The week before, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture had asked the federal government for $2.6 billion in emergency aid funding.

On 14 May 2020, the Prime Minister also announced $470 million to support fish harvesters. This funding builds upon the $62.5-million Canadian Seafood Stabilization Fund announced the month before.

On 15 May 2020, Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act, received Royal Assent. The bill increases the Canadian Dairy Commission’s borrowing limit from $300 million to $500 million to account for additional costs associated with the temporary storage of dairy products.

Food Prices

In March 2020, researchers at Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab and the University of Guelph’s Arnell Food Institute updated their forecast for food prices in 2020. Despite the pandemic, they confirm their December 2019 forecast of no more than a 4% annual increase. However, they note three factors that may also affect food prices in the coming months:

  • the pressure to change food safety practices in retail and production could lead to an increased workload for the industry;
  • the weakness of the Canadian dollar could increase the cost of imported food; and
  • the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which resulted in a massive drop in the price of oil in the early months of 2020, could lower the cost of transporting food to markets.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois also explains that, although food prices could increase in Canada, consumers may end up saving money as they spend less at restaurants and become better at managing their food inventory.

At the international level, the FAO reported that world food commodity prices declined in February, March and April 2020 due to reduced demand for some food products as a result of the pandemic.

Food Safety

Food safety, which is not to be confused with food security, includes the measures and practices to prevent food from carrying or transmitting foodborne illnesses, contaminants and other hazards. At the time of writing, there is no scientific evidence to support that food is a source or route for the transmission of SARS-CoV2, the virus causing COVID-19. 

During the pandemic, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is maintaining critical services, such as food safety inspections and investigations. The government announced it will provide an additional $20 million to the CFIA to support these services.

Additional Resources

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, COVID-19 – Information for the agriculture and agri-food industry.

Bashar Abu Taleb, Julie Béchard, Madalina Chesoi and Natacha Kramski, “The Movement of Goods and People In and Out of Canada in a COVID-19 World,” Library of Parliament, 3 April 2020.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Coronavirus (COVID-19): information for consumers about food safety and animal health.

Elisa Levi and Tabitha Robin, “COVID-19 Did Not Cause Food Insecurity In Indigenous Communities But It Will Make It Worse,” Yellowhead Institute, 29 April 2020.

Food Banks Canada, Find a Food Bank.

Author: Olivier Leblanc-Laurendeau, Library of Parliament