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Empty shelves are seen at a Superstore grocery store in Richmond, B.C., on March 17, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor of food distribution and policy, and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, at Dalhousie University.

Have Canadians at large ever been more interested in the mechanics of the country’s supply chains?

The novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted discussions about the logistics of how food gets to our restaurants, grocery stores and kitchens. There is much more appreciation for the people involved who work hard to make our food systems work, from farm to fork.

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This is outstanding. But the journey hasn’t been without its challenges.

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Empty shelves, lineups outside stores and long queues when ordering food online have made some people nervous. As such, the British Columbia government recently gave itself the authority to take over supply chains for delivering essential goods and services throughout the province. In other words, the province believes it can do a better job at logistics than companies such as Costco, Amazon and Walmart.

Governments have taken steps to manage public-health risks the best they possibly can in these unprecedented times; for the most part, their work has been amazing. But supply chains are not something bureaucrats are qualified to fully understand, especially nowadays. When someone is not involved with the mechanics of supply chains daily, blind spots can be overwhelming for the uneducated eye. Given the current pandemic climate, most of those in government are inundated with the complex challenges posed by COVID-19. Governments barely have the capacity to fully take on this new work – and overtaxing government could create a new problem in our food security, especially if little or no national or international oversight is provided.

Regardless, B.C.’s move is not surprising. Empty shelves seen in many places likely prompted B.C. to move on this issue. Many experts claim panic-buying and hoarding occurred largely because of the psychological effect of seeing the world dealing with a pandemic and prompted many to fear the worst: that the country was running out of food and products. That may well have been the case, but the fact that most Canadians have lost the art of food buying and menu planning has also contributed to this massive hysteria of food hoarding. In an era when convenience dictates most facets of our daily lives, most Canadians have no idea how to plan out their meals. Most mornings, many Canadians have no clue what they will be eating for dinner that evening, let alone over the course of one to two weeks. Our inability to appreciate what two weeks’ worth of food looks like influences behaviour in grocery stores – especially in times of crisis.

But by virtue of this new reality, Canadians – along with other consumers in the Western world – are slowly learning. Shoppers are walking into stores with a greater sense of civic responsibility and a more disciplined sense of self-awareness. As we become accustomed to this new normal, the worst of the hoarding instinct should be behind us.

But when a province opts to take over supply chains, people will only grow concerned that the system is so weak that only government can save it. There’s also the fact that some supply chains are already public – such as alcohol and cannabis, in most provinces – which can lead to conflicting priorities within government. What also needs to be recognized is that few goods flow simply within a provincial topography. National, and most desirably, international co-ordination is critical. For B.C. to unilaterally move forward with such a policy can be detrimental to the true optimization of supply chains, and it could set a terrible precedent that Alberta, Ontario and Quebec choose to follow.

A case can be made that the government should manage the supply chains for medical equipment and sanitary products, but food distribution requires the private sector to play a central role in creating a sound equilibrium between supply and demand across many parties. If all provinces and states opt to do the same thing, national and international co-ordination is possible, but even then, it will require the support and expertise of the private sector. Many companies in food distribution have gained the ability to develop efficient logistical models, despite international borders. Companies where the core competencies are understanding how supply chains and logistics work have been able to transcend borders to better serve markets all over the world.

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If governments really want to serve the public, they would leave supply-chain management to the people who are already expert at such work: those in the private sector.

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