Canada

Winnipeg starts early on panic buying as politicians debate seriousness of food shortage problem

‘There will be sporadic empty spots here and there depending on the section of the grocery store … but to be honest I’ve been seeing empty shelves for months now’

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While politicians continue to trade barbs over Canada’s food security, in certain parts of the country the panic buying has already begun.

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“In Winnipeg, particularly,” said Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “Which is odd, because there’s been two provinces where I haven’t seen any empty shelves at all, and that would be Saskatchewan and Manitoba.”

He said both provinces benefit greatly from the proximity to both Canada’s and the United States’ agricultural centres and locational advantages in shipping routes.

Canadians, he said, should be worried — but warned against outright panic.

“We will continue to see food on shelves in Canada.”

“Yes, there will be sporadic empty spots here and there depending on the section of the grocery store you’re looking at, but to be honest I’ve been seeing empty shelves for months now.”

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Indeed, many of the reports of shortages and empty shelf photos shared on social media this week are for local products — such as eggs and pork — which are insulated from cross-border vaccine mandates.

Last week’s snowstorm that closed highways from Windsor to Ottawa also played a factor in recent shortages, Charlebois said.

Meanwhile, the Liberal government maintains that food shortages triggered by vaccine mandates — which prevents unvaccinated truck drivers from easily crossing the Canada-US border — are much ado about nothing.

During a Wednesday afternoon press conference in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dodged questions about links between vaccine mandates and food shortages — answering that nearly 90 per cent of truck drivers are full-vaccinated against COVID-19, and accused the Conservatives of spreading fear and misinformation on social media.

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“The Conservatives are, unfortunately, engaged in a campaign of disinformation,” he said, referring to a tweet earlier this week by rookie CPC MP Melissa Lantsman which featured empty shelves in a UK grocery store.

“This is the kind of disinformation that we’ve unfortunately grown used to from the Conservative Party.”

Meanwhile, opposition MPs say it’s actually the Liberals who are being disingenuous by insisting the mandates won’t have that much of an impact on Canadian food security.

“The Liberals are misleading Canadians when they say there will be no supply chain disruptions as thousands of truckers are being taken off the road,” said Conservative MP and shadow minister for Agriculture and Food Security John Barlow.

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“At a time when inflation is already at a record high, Canadians will be the ones paying the price for the Trudeau government’s policy decisions that further exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis.”

People rally in support of truckers and against COVID vaccine mandates, January 25. 2022 in Winnipeg.
People rally in support of truckers and against COVID vaccine mandates, January 25. 2022 in Winnipeg. Photo by Chris Procaylo/Postmedia

Canada’s food industry suffered alongside other shipping-dependent industries over the past year, as the supply chain crisis chokes imports of both raw goods and finished products from overseas.

“The food industry is experiencing supply chain fatigue,” said Charlebois.

“Omicron has made things much worse because of how virulent it was, and the vaccine mandate is coming at a time that may not be overly appropriate.”

Winter is when Canadian grocery stores rely most on imports from the U.S., he said — particularly with produce that’s challenging or impossible to grow locally.

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Because it’s so economically sensitive, the supply chain will find a way to work around the vaccine mandates, he said — but that doesn’t mean the next trip to the grocery store won’t come without some sticker shock.

“I’m more concerned about prices than empty shelves,” Charlebois said.

But like the shortages, some prices — such as beef and dairy — would have gone up even if the pandemic never happened.

“Dairy is going to be a big story this year,” he said.

“It has nothing to do with the mandate, because everything we do in dairy is domestic in Canada.”

In its latest update last week, Canada’s Consumer Price Index rose an average 3.4 per cent last year, after a 0.7% increase the year previous.

The pandemic bore much of the blame for the increased cost of goods and services, bolstered by supply chain failures, pent-up consumer demand as the economy recovered, and increases in shipping costs.

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Prince Edward Island saw the biggest increase in consumer prices at just over five per cent in 2021, while Iqaluit (1.4 per cent) and Saskatchewan (2.6 per cent) saw the country’s slowest CPI growth last year.

While shoppers will see slowdowns and shortages in food imports thanks to the mandate, there isn’t one single “canary-in-the-coalmine” product that would indicate shortages are going from bad to worse.

Solving the problem, Charlebois said, isn’t going to rest on just Ottawa or Washington alone.

“The U.S. are in this as much as Canada, you can’t really ask Ottawa to reverse any mandates because you need reciprocity at the border,” he said.

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