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2020 in Hindsight

2020: Hardly Normal and Far From Perfect

Gordon Bacon
CEO, Pulse Canada

By many measures, 2020 has been a bit of a bust!  Early in February, travel was being restricted and by early March many companies around the world had implemented travel and meeting restrictions. By the middle of March, Canadians were urged to come home.  Shopping for basics and even gathering with family and friends has to be addressed by government health directives.  Gathering sizes have become smaller, businesses have been shuttered, celebrations cancelled, yet we have failed miserably to protect many of our most vulnerable populations.  Who saw this coming? We are all masked up with nowhere we want to go. 

For the health of individual Canadians, we have reason to be optimistic for 2021 as COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll out. But the availability of a vaccine for some will still leave many questions about the future of travel, large gatherings for sports and entertainment or even a simple evening out!  In the post-2020 world we are all myopic and still without the corrective lens to give us clarity about the future.

COVID-19 has inflicted economic and social disaster for some, and death for nearly 1.7 million people world-wide (Dec 22/20).  But for many, the impact has been to a social routine rather than an economic disruption or a personal disaster.  How business is done has changed, but markets for grains, oilseeds and pulses in 2020 have been impacted more by global politics than a global pandemic.  Disruptions to container freight have been significant, yet markets have remained strong.  One economic indicator, land values, have remained very strong. Angst has exceeded impact.  

So what might change in 2021? Global politics will continue to be the news to watch as closely as the weather, with a major focus on global economic and food trade giants including the USA, China and India.  As the UN holds a Food System Summit in October 2021, consequences for the food system arising from the focus on environmental issues may need to be watched closely.  Recent history shows clearly that global summits like Paris Climate Change impact us all.  Food won’t be exempt.  In Canada, there is more focus on what goes into our fuel tank than there is on what goes into the grocery cart.

The UN focus on ‘sustainable food systems’ as part of the development agenda, including climate change, could well be the catalyst that drives global food companies and national governments in approaches to food policy in 2021 and beyond.  The focus needs to be on food, and that is different than looking at the issue from the perspective of farming.

A food system approach will look at food and health outcomes caused by hunger but also by obesity.  The affordability of food will be key and has to be looked at primarily from the perspective of income but we know that there will also be a look at the costs of nutritionally adequate diets.  A sustainable food system will need to look at the global nutrition challenge and the dietary impact on carbon, water, biodiversity across ecosystems.  And we know that major food companies around the world will be evaluated on their ability to deliver on these converging challenges of health outcomes, environmental impact and affordability.

Canada, as an exporter of dietary ingredients grown on Canadian farms, processed in Canadian plants and hopefully made into food in Canadian factories, should be front and centre at these discussions.  When the international policy matrix is combined with domestic policy priorities like economic growth, domestic investment and job creation in Canada, government policy will need to be connected in ways that assess impacts across multiple dimensions.  The actions of any one Minister will need to be looked at from many perspectives.

There are many gaps that will need to be filled to be ready for transformational change in the global food system.  One gap that looms large at the international level, and certainly at the Canadian level, is an approach to achieving a behavioral change in a consumer’s approach to food.  One dimensional approaches like removing salt or sugar from food, whilst the salt shaker and sugar bowl remains on the table, or taxing carbon in Canada while food is traded globally, do not check all of the boxes on the forward looking score card.  Creating an incentive for behavioral change at the consumer level is essential if all the actions in the areas of health, environment, affordability and availability of foods are to achieve the goals of this push to good diets.

Incremental improvement is needed.  Transformative approaches are essential.  Let’s hope that all this time at home hasn’t weakened our ability to rise to the challenges ahead.


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