Survey shows increasing food supply concerns as farmers forced to dump milk, cull eggs due to COVID-19

Survey shows increasing food supply concerns as farmers forced to dump milk, cull eggs due to COVID-19
Recent reports of dumped milk and euthanized pigs due to processing backlogs caused by COVID-19 have many Canadians concerned about the food supply chain, a survey out of Dalhousie University has found.

So-called “farmgate waste” has been in the news recently as some producers have had to dispose of animals and food products that cannot be accepted by processing plants. In an effort to discover how Canadians feel about the practice, the university’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, in partnership with research firm Caddle, drew a measured sample size of 1,567 Canadians between May 11 and 13.

The national survey was funded by Caddle and Dalhousie University and approved by the university’s ethics board, said lead author and Dalhousie professor in food distribution and policy Sylvain Charlebois. The margin of error was +/- 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, and the polls were conducted via Caddle’s app.

Overall, the survey found Canadians are increasingly concerned about food security during COVID-19, a concern that is amplified by news of farmgate waste.

Farmgate waste occurs when a product such as dairy or pork is disposed of at the producer level — for example, milk is dumped or animals are euthanized. This occurs when supply outpaces demand, as is happening right now due to the global pandemic.

Charlebois says the decision to throw out food products is often made by marketing boards, at least when it comes to supply-chain managed industries such as dairy, poultry and eggs.

“It’s not necessarily (the farmer’s) decision, they just comply,” he said.

Supply-chain management is a system meant to curb production surpluses by giving producers production quotas, setting fixed prices for producers and supporting them when demand falls. It was first adopted in Canada for dairy in the 1970s and then later for poultry and eggs.

The survey asked Canadians whether or not they have access to enough food, and then asked a series of questions about farmgate waste, such as when they felt it appropriate to euthanize pigs, which is happening in the United States, or dump milk.

The survey found that compared to last year, more Canadians feel insecure about their food supply and are concerned about accessing enough food, said Charlebois, the lead author of the report. He said this increase in anxiety over food security is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just over 48 per cent of the survey respondents said dumping milk should be illegal, while 53.5 per cent said euthanizing healthy pigs should also be illegal. Roughly the same percentage of respondents, 54.4 per cent, thought euthanizing chickens should be illegal.

However, 25.7 per cent said a pandemic was a reasonable situation in which to dump milk, 23.7 per cent said it was a good enough reason to euthanize pigs, and 24.4 per cent felt it was a good enough reason to euthanize chickens.

Forty-eight per cent of respondents said farmers should give their products to charity and should be compensated for it.

Charlebois said many Canadians may not understand how the food supply chain works, and don’t necessarily realize that often the decision to dump or euthanize is not made by the farmer.

The report makes several recommendations based on the survey results and on recent news of farmgate waste.

It states that for commodities under supply-chain management — dairy, eggs and chicken — there should be more pressure for producers, processors and marketing boards to work together and find a solution other than food waste. Making it illegal to discard these commodities could provide this pressure, the report states.

“COVID really has amplified this issue,” said Charlebois, one of five researchers involved in the report. “We recommend that boards are made accountable and responsible for the wastes (of) their commodities.”

For commodities not under supply-chain management, such as the pork industry, making wastage illegal might not have the same effect, the report states, but there needs to be better coordination between processors and producers to avoid waste.

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Charlebois thinks the pandemic could be a catalyst for change in these industries.

“It’s really a paradigm shift that needs to happen,” he said. “It’s about caring for everyone in the value chain from farm to fork.”

A spokesperson for the Canadian Chicken Farmers said the organization’s members have not had to euthanize any birds during the pandemic, which they view as “an unacceptable option,” only to be used as a last resort.

Jean-Michel Laurin, CEO and president of the Canadian Poultry & Egg Processors Council, said the organization’s members, which include hatcheries and processors, had to make a one-time decision to ramp down their production by 7.5 to 15 per cent, depending on the province. This meant culling a certain percentage of eggs, he said.
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