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As Canadians grapple with the many challenges wrought by the current pandemic, they are also concerned by the amount of food being wasted on farms.
Up to 50 million litres of milk were thrown away in Canada in recent weeks. More than two million eggs were eliminated from the food chain, and there are reports of large numbers of pigs and chickens being euthanized because they couldn’t be harvested or properly stored.
In Quebec, La Presse recently reported the culling of 200,000 chickens. Last month, Bloomberg reported more than 90,000 pigs were killed and discarded in Canada. None of this is sitting well with Canadians, especially as COVID-19 has created greater concerns around food insecurity.
Results of a national survey released by Dalhousie University on Wednesday suggest the majority of Canadians believe euthanizing animals in this context should be illegal, and almost half indicated it should also be illegal for farmers to dump milk in order to get a fair price.
“I believe there’s certainly great products being produced in Canada by our farmers, whether it’s pork, beef, milk, but I think there’s some level of transparency and accountability that needs to be shown to Canadians, especially in 2020 when over three million people have lost their jobs and now are going to food banks by the thousands,” Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois said in an interview Tuesday.
“To me, it’s a bit insulting for trade groups to just politicize the issue and move on and say, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Actually, I think you can and that’s kind of why we’ve generated this report.”
The latest COVID-19 survey by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University is in partnership with Caddle, a research firm focused on consumer insights in the agri-food sector. Charlebois said their goal was to find out how Canadians feel about farmgate waste and what should be done about it.
“I was actually quite surprised at the number of people that actually do believe that food waste on the farm is inexcusable and should be considered as illegal,” he said.
“Food waste on the farm is the big elephant in the room for farmers. They just don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to report it, and they don’t report it unless they really have to.”
When asked if farmers should euthanize their healthy hogs/pigs in order to get a fair price, 53.55% of respondents answered that it should be illegal, while 23.7% said it should only be permitted under exceptionally difficult circumstances such as a pandemic.
Slightly more Canadians, (54.4%), thought euthanizing chickens should be illegal, with 24.4% believing COVID-19 or a pandemic was a good reason to euthanize them.
“That was really a shocker for me. I was expecting to see a lot of people, but not the majority,” Charlebois said.
Among Nova Scotia respondents, 53.1% believed it should be illegal to kill healthy hogs/pigs, while 55% believed it should be illegal to cull chickens.
When it came to the practice of discarding milk, 48.3% of Canadians believed it should be illegal. That number rose to 51.6% among Nova Scotia respondents.
In total, 25.7% of Canadians felt that a pandemic gives farmers and the industry a valid excuse.
“I think people appreciate that farmers are really stuck. They’re not solely responsible for the waste. This is a supply chain issue, and it came out in the results,” Charlebois said.
“Supply management is designed not to have any waste, we’re not supposed to be dumping milk or killing chickens or wasting eggs.”
Charlebois said while there are reports of farmers regularly dumping milk on several occasions over the last 20 years, the difference now is the sheer volume of waste as a result of COVID.
“Dumping is not unusual in Canada, and this is a problem we need to fix because people are paying for this milk,” he said. “You have quotas sanctioned by the government to produce this milk and you’re partially subsidized now, by taxpayers. You shouldn’t be dumping milk.”
Charlebois said Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government “did the right thing” when it recently gave a $200 million credit to the Canadian Dairy Commission (CDC), a Crown Corporation.
“All they need to do is to elaborate a strategy to deal with surpluses. But if discarding is cheaper, they’re not going to be incentivized to think outside the box and that’s been the problem,” he said.
“Dumping milk is the easiest thing to do. And of course the other big elephant in the room? This is very much about pricing. You want to maintain a fair price.”
While farmgate waste can never be entirely eliminated, Charlebois said stakeholders would be forced to find better solutions to surpluses if discarding supply managed commodities (dairy, poultry and eggs) was deemed an illegal practice.
“The centrepiece of our proposal is processing. It’s the forgotten child in the supply chain…You need to improve capacity,” he explained.
Because they operate within a free-market environment and are exposed to external pressures, he said non-supply management commodities require better vertical coordination with processors.
As an example of this commodity, Charlebois points to pigs. They’re very expensive to feed, and the longer they sit on the lot the more costly it becomes.
“That’s why they want to dump the product as soon as possible, so I can absolutely appreciate that,” he said. “On top of that, hogs are worthless these days when you look at futures and that’s why there’s really there’s no incentive for them to keep them around, because it would cost them more to feed them than to euthanize them.”
That means making wasting product illegal “would not serve these (non-supply management) sectors well” and it’s why Charlebois points to processing as the centrepiece of any agri-food value chain strategy. He believes it’s time for producers to work differently with processors.
“For me, it’s always been an issue of value chains. It’s about sharing. So what you would see say in Holland or Denmark is more vertical coordination where farmers and processors work together to coordinate activities together,” Charlebois explained.
“They share objectives, and to a certain extent share profits too. In Canada, there’s such a division that farmers are left on their own and processors are left on their own and they hate each other, and that’s not helpful. Especially in a time of crisis.”
He also points to cooperatives as being helpful to farmers during crises, citing Gaylea and Agropur among those doing “quite well” despite the pandemic.
“That’s a governance model that should be promoted to nurture and foster this whole issue of vertical coordination,” he said.
He also points to the need for tax incentives for research and development of new products and programs.
“I just hope that COVID will get all stakeholders working together and start really working as a supply chain,” he said. “We need to recognize that the anchor to it all is processing and without that, nothing works and the farmers are the first ones to pay.”
The survey also looked at how Canadians felt about food security and access to the proper food they needed to be healthy both before and during the pandemic. A year before the pandemic, 72.6% of Canadians felt they had enough of the food they wanted and didn’t consider access to food an issue. That sentiment dropped by more than 11 percentage points in May of this year, falling to 61%.
Baby boomers (identified as those born between 1946 and 1964) felt much more strongly about farmgate waste and farm animals being euthanized. A total of 65% believe milk waste on the farm should be illegal. For pigs, the rate is 68.3%, and for chickens, 68.9%.
Among millenials (those identified as born between 1981 and 1996), only 40.1% believed discarding raw milk should be illegal. For pigs, that percentage goes up to 45.5%, and for chickens, 45.3%.
Asked what farmers should be doing to reduce waste, 48% of Canadians believe farmers should do “whatever it takes” to give their products to charity but should be compensated for it.
A total of 19.3% of respondents believe that Canadian farmers should donate without any compensation. In addition, 6.7% are comfortable with the idea of killing livestock and discarding products regardless of circumstances.
A total of 1,563 Canadians were surveyed between May 11 and 13, 2020. The sample carries a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
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As an engineer who has contributed to the design of poultry and pork processing facilities, the reality is that the meat processing industry, despite a supply of largely immigrant work willing to do difficult, dangerous, dirty work for close to minimum wage is very focused on reducing labor costs. The result is a slaughter and processing industry that is incredibly efficient (that is why you can buy a cooked chicken at Superstore for less than an hour worth of minimum wage labor), but terribly inflexible in dealing with, for instance, changes in the size of meat chickens, which is why edible birds are being killed and composted.