Will Dairy have a Post COVID-19 Renaissance?

Canada's dairy industry
Cows eating hay in the barn at a dairy farm

Providing comfort and good health, dairy products will be found in the middle of pandemic-driven consumer changes

By Sylvain Charlebois
Professor in Food Distribution and Policy
Dalhousie University
Before COVID-19, the Canadian dairy industry was struggling with its image and its focus. For a growing number of consumers, it had become old and boring, and more people were hesitant to trust what was happening in the dairy sector.
Farming communities were clearly not ready for the new attitudes and values shared by many urban consumers.
Animal activists and environmentalists were gaining on the industry, which could provide little in the way of response to their arguments.
Authenticity and wholesomeness were the public relations weapons of choice for the dairy industry. Still, momentum was not on the sector’s side – until COVID-19 showed up.
COVID-19 hit quickly and quite violently. Many of us simply lost our psychological and rational bearings and got into a survival funk. The result was panic buying, lineups and a genuine distrust in our food supply chain’s ability to provide the food we would need for some time. For days, even weeks, many felt genuinely food insecure – and all of this in one of the richest countries in the world. It’s a notion that was considered impossible just a few weeks earlier.
As we end the first phase of our long, slow march towards normalcy, we can see that things have changed dramatically. Our food vocabulary has completely changed over just a few weeks. Conversations about plant-based products, veganism, animal welfare and sustainability have swiftly been replaced by discussions about supply chains, empty shelves, flour, yeast and eggs.
Fear is one of the most powerful feelings a human can experience. As we were confined to our homes, we were all forced by fear to go back to basics.
You could argue that Canadians have never cooked this much since the end of the Second World War. Our relationships with our kitchens, the true heart of the home, have grown stronger.
According to a recent survey from restaurant management firm AMC Group, 42 per cent of the people polled plan to make more home-cooked meals after the virus passes. It likely won’t be that high but it certainly will be more than 10 per cent.
We’re creatures of habit and given how long the lockdown has lasted, COVID-19’s legacy will be about how it forever changed the way we relate to food. In other words, some of our new habits will remain.
With a powerful combination of providing comfort and promoting good health, milk and dairy products will be found in the middle of all these changes. With its marvellous fusion between animal and vegetable, and given its unparalleled natural integrity and voice, milk always finds a way into recipes and beverages for many diets.
What’s more, as has been demonstrated several times in health research, a sedentary lifestyle will get people to consume more dairy products, eventually.
With most restaurants closed, overall demand for milk is down, so numbers aren’t encouraging right now. But sales will come back, with consumers giving more space to dairy at home.
With stay-cations expected to be more popular over the next little while, dairy consumption at home will also push sales in the foodservice industry over time.
And coming out of COVID-19, dairy farmers will likely have more direct access to consumers. According to a recent poll, 22 per cent of Canadians intend to shop online more often after the crisis.
So COVID-19 could democratize the supply chain. Once online buying for food purchases exists in consumers’ minds, anything is possible. We’re already seeing groups of farmers engaging with consumers online since a void has been created by grocers who have been overwhelmed by demand.
And farmers will charge a premium, because they can.
COVID-19 is exactly what the dairy industry needed, even though the virus has created havoc in our daily lives – and far worse for those who contracted it.
Sustainability, plant-based protein and all other spending trends we saw in food before COVID-19 will eventually bounce back. Their return, though, will be linked directly to the economic health and consumer confidence, and that may take a while – long enough for dairy to play a much larger role in our daily lives.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is the senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
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