Alberta’s agriculture industry could prove to be the silver lining to these COVID-19 storm clouds once the sky clears again.
“There’s no doubt about it — the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting Alberta really hard,” Rob Roach, director of research for ATB’s economics team, said in an April 8 interview.
“We are in a recessionary situation, maybe one of the worst ones we’ve seen in recent memory. But overall, I think one of the bright spots in a really dark economic situation in the province is our agriculture and agri-food sector.
“It’s still producing. It’s still providing an essential service. It hasn’t closed down in the way a lot of businesses have.”
Compared with other key industries in the province — including the oil and gas sector, which has experienced record-low prices in recent weeks — the agriculture sector is doing “relatively well” right now, said Roach.
“Agriculture is providing some continuity, and of course, it’s also providing the food that we’re eating. I think the pandemic is really reminding people everywhere how important it is to have a reliable, high-quality food supply that can make it through these crises.”
And as the pandemic plays out and Alberta works to rebuild its economy, agriculture could play an important role in those efforts.
“The industry doesn’t have to restart,” said Roach. “It doesn’t have to worry about whether there are still going to be buyers for our products. Agriculture will be spared some of those challenges.”
But that’s not to say there won’t be potential issues, he added.
As people become more used to social distancing — and in turn, more fearful of others — some countries could start to implement protectionist policies that limit or block trade.
“Anxiety is high and they may want to set inward-looking policies as a knee-jerk reaction,” said Roach. “The sector will have to work against that to some degree.”
As a country that relies heavily on exports for its agricultural commodities, Canada will need to remind its trading partners of the value of working together.
“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and forget all the benefits of international trade,” said Roach. “There’s room to improve — there was even before the pandemic — but we don’t want to lose that essential core argument that we’re better off as traders.”
It’s an opportunity for Canada’s agriculture industry to shine on the global stage, he added.
“I think it’s a real chance for Alberta and the Canadian agricultural system to show the world that we are a high-quality, reliable supplier of food,” he said. “Alberta has been helping to feed the world for decades and decades, so this is a real opportunity for us to build on that post-pandemic.”
Moreover, local food supply chains have grown in the wake of the pandemic, and that could be another opportunity for Alberta producers.
“For a long time, people have been talking about the importance of locally grown food and how valuable that is,” said Roach. “I think that’s another opportunity for us to keep building that local market, where Albertans can take advantage of our local supply of food and food products.”
There will be setbacks, and it will take some time to get there, but Roach sees sunny days ahead for Alberta’s agriculture industry.
“Overall, the sector is really well positioned both to serve that local market and to keep feeding the world, which is only growing in size and demand for food products,” he said. “I think there’s a really bright future ahead.”