“Farmgate waste” is the term to describe what’s happening to some livestock and certain food products all across Canada due to the pandemic: up to 50 million litres of milk were discarded in recent weeks, and more than two million eggs were eliminated from the food chain, according to Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab in the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University. Pigs and chickens have been euthanized for the same reason: supply outpacing demand.
While shocking to many members of the public, food waste on farms has been a recurring issue for years, not just due to the pandemic, Charlebois said in a recent release. However, with COVID-19 resulting in much of the food-service sector shutting down, the market for certain farm prdocuts simply isn’t there.
The decision to discard food products is often made by marketing boards, he noted, at least when it comes to supply-chain managed industries such as dairy, poultry, and eggs.
Baby boomers feel more strongly about farmgate waste than millennials
The Agri-Food Analytics Lab partnered with research firm Caddle (which specializes in consumer insights in the agri-food sector) to find out how Canadians feel about farmgate waste and what should be done about it. The two organizations conducted a national survey of nearly 1,570 people across the country.
Just over 48 percent of Canadians felt that discarding milk should be illegal. A total of 25.7 percent felt that a pandemic gives farmers and the industry a valid excuse for throwing it away.
As for hogs and pigs, 53.5 percent of Canadians felt the act should be illegal, while 23.7 percent felt a pandemic was a valid reason to euthanize pigs.
The highest percentage against euthanizing was regarding chickens, with 54.4 percent of Canadians saying it should be illegal. Just over 24 percent believe COVID-19 or a pandemic is a good reason to discard chickens.
The Province of Quebec showed the highest rates of consumers who think that throwing away all three types of commodities should be illegal. Rates were 54.1 percent for milk, 56.9 percent for hogs, and 57 percent for chickens.
Baby boomers (1946-1964) feel much more strongly about farmgate waste and farm animals being euthanized than other demographics.
Sixty-five percent of boomers feel milk waste on the farm should be illegal. For pigs, the rate is 68.3 percent, and for chickens, 68.9 percent.
These percentages are very high compared to millennials (1981-1996). Only 40.1 percent of millennials believe discarding raw milk should be illegal. For pigs, that percentage goes up to 45.5 percent, and for chickens it’s 45.3 percent.
When asked what farmers should be doing to reduce waste, 48 percent of Canadians said farmers should do whatever it takes to give their products to charity but should be compensated for it. “In other words, almost half of Canadians recognize that farmers are not solely responsible for the waste at farmgate,” Charlebois said in a release.
Just over 19 percent of Canadians feel that farmers should donate without any compensation.
“Waste at farmgate can never be eliminated entirely but results of this survey suggest Canadians have little tolerance for avoidable waste,” Charlebois said. “The $50 million buy-back program for commodity surpluses presented by the Federal Government was creative, but it would be challenging to implement. Governance and priorities would be difficult to set, let alone the fact that non-profit organizations need funding. The program does not achieve that goal. Most commodity groups are already very generous and provide a wealth of donations to food banks and people in need.
“But without clear incentives, sectors will not be motivated to change and reduce the amount of waste at farmgate,” he added. “It is often cheaper just to discard a commodity than to redirect or repurpose it, one way or another. For supply managed commodities for which public-sanctioned quotas are required, the government should consider these commodities as a public good. For poultry, eggs, and milk, very few can produce these commodities in Canada, in addition to the fact that high tariffs on imports are imposed to protect our producers. We essentially produce what we need under supply management.”
Consequently, surpluses are rare, but clearly not impossible.
No chickens have been euthanized
A spokesperson for the Canadian Chicken Farmers told the Toronto Star that its members have not euthanized any birds during the pandemic, which they view as “an unacceptable option”.
Jean-Michel Laurin is the CEO and president of the Canadian Poultry & Egg Processors Council, which represents hatcheries and processors and is on the board of the Chicken Farmers of Canada. He told the Toronto Star that the latter group had to make the difficult decision of ramping down production by anywhere from 7.5 to 15 percent, depending on the province. This led to the culling a certain percentage of eggs, a decision CPEPC supported.
It was “a one-time decision” made to adjust the market, he told the Star, and an unprecedented one that he hopes won’t have to be made again.
Charlebois suggested that making the disposal of supply-managed commodities illegal would get stakeholders to work together to find better solutions to surpluses. Should an infraction occur, marketing boards should be held responsible, since boards are the ones ordering farmers to discard their products.
“In milk production, for example, the Canadian Dairy Commission should be charged with the task of expanding its current strategic reserve,” Charlebois said. “The Canadian Dairy Commission is a crown corporation, owned by Canadians….Technologies like UHT (Ultra High Temperature) can be used to store milk for up to a year. Milk can also be diverted for the bioenergy sector, or other types of products. Options do exist, but a strategy would need to be fostered by the entire supply chain. All efforts would need to be conducted jointly with processors.”
Furthermore, to provide more flexibility within the system, interprovincial barriers would need to be revisited, Charlebois said. Provincially licenced facilities could trade outside provincial borders to allow more options for producers to use, should a federally licenced facility be idle.
The survey also asked Canadians how they felt about food security and access to the proper food they needed to be healthy before and during the pandemic.
A year prior the pandemic, 72.6 percent of Canadians felt they had enough of the food they wanted and did not consider access to food an issue. That sentiment dropped to 61 percent in May of this year. Alberta saw the largest drop between the two periods, at 21.2 percent.