Updated: Jan 28, 2021
To say that a year like 2020 was an exciting time in the agri-food industry is a huge understatement. Just ask Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, professor and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“It’s been a busy year because there have been so many changes,” he says. “To anticipate all this change [in the agri-food industry] has been difficult with COVID-19, and every week has its own narrative. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s always exciting to try and understand what’s going to happen. Every now and then I get to speculate, and we get to try to draw what the future looks like. That is always exciting.”
A big part of Dr. Charlebois’ work happens in the university lab where he oversees a staff of twenty knowledgeable researchers. Their work is project-based and most often commissioned by Canadian governments or companies. At times, agencies outside Canada will also reach out as part of the globalized food value chain.
Research projects in the Agri-Food Analytics Lab might focus on plant-based trends, e-commerce, domestic and international trade, or climate change and its impacts upon agriculture. The team works with methodologies including Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
“It’s always about the future of food,” says Dr. Charlebois. “We try to understand trends in advance, and we also forecast food prices over twelve to twenty-four months.”
To do all this projecting, those who work in the agri-food industry understand that Canada’s food value chain is influenced by variables both inside and outside of Canada. Good decision making, efficiency, and safety within the food value chain is all about transparency and the sharing of information, including those trends Dr. Charlebois and his team are studying.
One major current interest? The way the food value chain is opening up with e-commerce. “A lot more people are buying online, which will really impact the infrastructure of this industry,” he says. “We’re seeing farmers and processors selling directly to consumers. Many companies have pivoted in recent months because of COVID-19 to engage with the public. Consumers actually have more options online.”
With all this, his team recently released a report on the issue. It looked into developments such as meal kits, online grocery, curbside food pick-ups, and restaurant delivery phone apps. Titled “COVID-19 Online Food Activity,” the report found that nearly half of all Canadians order food online once per week since the pandemic. Reports like this one can be used to help businesses in the food industry make decisions, such as investing into digital projects.
Another major way globalization influences the food value chain here in Canada is in regards to technology and innovation, especially when it comes to what happens in the United States (US). This includes how certain technologies are used or the ways various products are developed. “Every now and then we do get hit by changes and shifts outside of our border, and we are asked to review or revise our methods or policies,” Dr. Charlebois says.
Globalization within the food value chain, particularly between Canada and the US, also determines the accessibility of food in our country in terms of both affordability and choice. For instance, Canadians can go to the grocery store and purchase peaches or onions from California during our off season and for a cheaper price.
But, with that advantage there is a flip side. “When a problem occurs, the scope of a recall, problem, or other issue is much, much larger,” says Dr. Charlebois. “We saw that last summer when there were safety issues related to these onions and peaches coming out of California. Several states and provinces were affected by this recall.”
However, for the most part, he adds that these recalls happen only once in a while and that, generally speaking, things go well. “Canadians are often well-served by trade and globalization in general,” he says.
An increasingly globalized food value chain, along with its many stakeholders, brings excellent career opportunities for Canada’s youth. In fact, demand for young minds within the agri-food industry is massive right now—right from the farm gate to retail services. “Oh my goodness, there are so many openings right now in the agri-food industry. We have thousands upon thousands of vacancies,” says Dr. Charlebois. “This sector really needs young leadership. It’s very important for this sector to employ new people who will have a different way of thinking. Do not overlook this sector.”
For more information on the food value chain explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.
Agri-Food Analytics Lab—COVID-19 Online Food Activity, 2020