The threat of a possible pandemic prompted researchers at the University of Manitoba to release a plan more than a decade ago detailing how the province could protect its local food supply in case its borders were shut and many people couldn’t work.
It was 2007, and concern about person-to-person transmission of the deadly H5N1 bird flu was looming, so nine academics were tasked with finding weak links in the province’s food-supply chain and presenting solutions to the government.
They developed a plan based on worst-case scenarios which, 13 years later, haven’t come true. But the study pointed to critical needs in Manitoba’s emergency planning and food-supply management systems, and one of its authors is now trying to update it for COVID-19, without knowing whether the initial advice it contained was ever heeded: Manitoba's department of agriculture didn't consult the 2008 report as part of its planning for this pandemic, the department confirmed.
The year after the study was released, the H1N1 pandemic was declared, and although 11 Manitobans died, that virus didn’t have as severe an impact in Canada as initially thought. The team quickly moved on to other research.
"And then we had a period of relative quiet, so they never really had to kick this into motion," said Paul Larson, professor of Supply Chain Management at U of M, who said he is working on an updated pandemic food-supply model.
"I suppose the interesting question would be, in the face of this current pandemic, did anyone find it useful?" Larson mused.
Their 176-page study through the U of M’s Transport Institute, commissioned by Manitoba’s department of agriculture and released in March 2008, highlighted "a general dearth of planning" among food-processing plants, retailers and logistics firms about how they would deal with a pandemic. The researchers recommended more risk-management planning and the set-up of a Manitoba Food Pandemic hotline to call in food shortages and monitor price increases.
Assuming a virus with a 35 per cent infection rate would force borders to shut and some, or even all, trade to stop, the researchers forecast possible surpluses of locally produced food in some parts of the province, with northern Manitoba the most likely to see shortages. They predicted Winnipeg Harvest and food banks would become a critical part of the supply chain, and that demand for meal-delivery services would spike.
The study used provincial health and population data in each region to parse out how much nutritious food is required to feed Manitobans, how much is being produced, and how it could all be distributed in an emergency. Asked about the shape Manitoba’s food supply chains are in, Larson recited the first few lines of a traditional childhood song: "oats, peas, beans and barley grow…"
"Manitoba produces oats, peas, beans and barley, but of course we don't produce bananas, oranges; and so one of our conclusions was there would be a period if the pandemic lasted and if that border truly were closed, where we'd have a fairly bland (diet). We'd probably tire of this diet before long, but the good news is, most of the major nutritional components are there, so it could be done," he said.
The researchers assumed Manitoba would be without international or even inter-provincial trade in a pandemic.
"We made that assumption: worst-case scenario, border closes; I don't think that's going to happen this time," Larson said. His updated supply chain model is expected to remove the spectre of closed borders and explore transportation issues that more closely reflect what’s happening now.
As part of the 2008 report, the team asked Manitobans how likely they thought it was that a pandemic would occur in the next five years, and how likely they would be to stock up on food or relocate to try to keep safe. Most of those surveyed said they wouldn’t move because of a pandemic, but would stock up on food. Few believed a pandemic was coming.
"Only 26.5 per cent of Manitobans believe that there is a good chance that a pandemic will occur or that a pandemic will definitely occur. Views in this regard were higher in the north and lower in rural Manitoba," the report stated.
"When we were doing this report, folks would look at us like we were nuts, you know what I mean?" Larson said. "We were sort of gently urging people to consider creating a pandemic plan, under the broad scheme of supply chain risk evaluation and management, but folks would say, ‘I'm busy enough doing other stuff, that's not likely to happen.'"
So, are there any lessons learned from the 2008 study that can be applied to the current pandemic?
"There is, and it's almost awkward to say it, but be prepared. And quite frankly, I think after this one, the odds of such a lack of preparation in the future are remote," Larson said.
"What I'd expect to see, even at a consumer level, a household level, you know, worst-case scenario, be able to cover your needs, whether it's certain critical foodstuffs, or toilet paper for that matter, I mean, have a three-month supply."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Wednesday, April 29, 2020 at 5:29 PM CDT: adds pdf of report