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With the stability ushered in by supply management, Canadian egg producers have been able to invest in new technology for sustainable farming.Supplied

In the early days of COVID-19, Canadians rushed out in droves to stock up on food and other necessities. Amidst all of this uncertainty, a 48-year-old system continued to work in the background to ensure a secure supply of one of the most popular and affordable protein sources in the country: fresh eggs from Canadian farms.

“Canada has a supply management system that guarantees food security for Canadians,” says Bruce Muirhead, associate vice president, research oversight and analysis, and professor of history, at the University of Waterloo, and Canada’s first egg industry research chair in public policy. “Compared with any other egg system in the world, our supply management system is resilient and reflects the Canadian way of co-operation and organization. It really is an act of genius.”

Supply management matches domestic demand with domestic supply and takes into account the number of eggs that can enter Canada under current trade agreements. The result: a market system where production levels are optimized to minimize egg shortages or surpluses, and where eggs are priced affordably while still ensuring strong and steady incomes for egg farmers without the need for government subsidies.

Canada’s supply management system is a post-modern system for the 21st century where everybody co-operates and everyone benefits. It works very, very well.

Prof. Bruce Muirhead, Associate vice president, research oversight and analysis, University of Waterloo, and egg industry research chair in public policy

Today, Canada’s supply management system provides the supportive framework that makes it possible for consumers to enjoy fresh, affordably priced eggs throughout the year, and for the country’s 1,100-plus farmers to continually grow their business.

“The system functions very, very well,” says Prof. Muirhead. “One of the genius aspects of supply management is that while it has oversight from the federal government, the operation of the system itself is provincially based so it can respond almost immediately to situations or crises.”

This responsiveness was on clear display in the weeks that followed state-of-emergency announcements across the country. Demand for eggs rose sharply during this period as Canadians stockpiled food and other household staples. Eggs continued to be in high demand during the subsequent months of lockdown, with many Canadians “stress-baking” and eating more home-cooked meals than they’ve done in the past.

Throughout all this turmoil and uncertainty, Canadians were able to count on a supply of eggs on grocery shelves. Egg prices stayed stable as well, ensuring affordability as Canadians worried about making ends meet during the pandemic.

It’s a far cry from decades past, when consumers and farmers faced huge variances in egg supply and pricing.

“Before supply management, pretty much every year there would be an egg shortage and prices would go up, and then farmers would go massively into egg production, causing market prices to collapse,” says Prof. Muirhead. “Consequently, oversupply of eggs became a big problem, so much so that there was great concern about the longevity of domestic agriculture and how egg farmers would continue to produce and survive if prices went below certain levels.”

With the stability and prosperity ushered in by supply management, Canadian egg producers have been able to invest in new technology and practices for sustainable farming. Over the last 50 years, the environmental impact of Canada’s egg industry decreased by 50 per cent while production increased by 50 per cent.

This collective commitment to sustainable farming practices, combined with stringent industry and regulatory controls through national programs such as the Animal Care and Start Clean-Stay Clean programs, ensures that Canadian eggs are produced according to the highest standards of food safety, product quality and animal care.

“No other country in the world offers the level of eggs supply efficiency and reliability that Canadians enjoy,” says Prof. Muirhead. Having talked to egg farmers in Australia and New Zealand struggling with unprofitable operations, he believes they are at risk of going bankrupt if market conditions tick downward. He has also compared egg prices in these countries against prices in Canada, and found that Canadian consumers are, on the whole, paying less for their omelettes and sunny-side ups than their Aussie and Kiwi counterparts.

“Canada’s supply management system is a post-modern system for the 21st century where everybody co-operates and everyone benefits,” says Prof. Muirhead. “It works very, very well – I don’t know why every single large country in the world with the potential to have a sustainable egg industry doesn’t have supply management.”

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.