Blockades at key border crossings between Canada and the U.S. are poised to leave Canadians facing shortages of produce, ketchup, and other essential food items.
For over a week, supporters of the so-called "Freedom Convoy'' protesting Canada's pandemic policies and democratic government have prevented hundreds of trucks from crossing a bridge linking Windsor, Ont., to Detroit, Mich., a key trade thoroughfare between the two countries. About $900 million of food transits the crossing each month, leading experts to warn its closure means Canadians could again be facing empty supermarket shelves.
"Forty-five percent of all agri-food imports in Ontario would (normally) go through that bridge," explained Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois, who runs the university's Agri-Food Analytics Lab. While he expects supplies of produce like lettuce, greens, tomatoes, or oranges will be the hardest hit, he warned that dry goods like pasta or soups could also take a hit.
Nearly $146 million worth of fresh vegetables and $95 million worth of fruit crossed the bridge into Canada last month, followed by fresh, frozen and processed meats. A hodgepodge of other products like ketchup, candy, breakfast cereals, snacks, and pet food, each worth over $20 million in December alone, also entered Canada, Statistics Canada data shows.
Charlebois said the unpredictability of the blockades poses a greater challenge to retailers than other recent supply chain disruptions, like B.C.'s November floods. With no sense of how long the protests will continue or whether they will spread to other border crossings, grocers are facing a logistical nightmare.
"(Grocers) basically have to reroute everything, which would add more hours, more fuel costs … and the freshness and quality will be compromised," he said.
What people are reading
Stalled traffic at the Windsor crossing isn't the only issue, Charlebois said. Blockades at the Coutts border crossing in Alberta are making it more difficult for ranchers to import livestock feed and hay, both in short supply in Canada after last summer's drought. Moreover, meat processors rely heavily on the Alberta crossing, which saw about $32 million worth of calves and cattle pass into the U.S. from Canada in December.
Coutts is also a major transit point for fresh vegetables and fruit entering Western Canada from the U.S., particularly in the winter, with nearly $93 million worth of produce passing through in December alone, according to Statistics Canada.
The Retail Council of Canada, a trade group representing grocers and other retailers, is urging federal and provincial officials to clear the blockade. In a statement, it noted, "There is an ironic twist … that current protests across the country are being portrayed as being about choice, yet they are actually likely to reduce choice for Canadian consumers and drive up costs for families."
Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Friday declared a provincial state of emergency, promising fines of up to $100,000 and a year in jail for people blocking key transportation infrastructure like border crossings, 400-series highways, airports, ports, bridges, and railways.
This article has been updated to correct the value of food crossing the border in Windsor, Ont., each month. It is $900 million, not $10 million.