The pandemic's educating us - Keith Roulston editorial
One of the fascinating side effects of the current pandemic is the lessons we’ve learned about how complicated and interconnected our world is.
Early on in the crisis, we saw proof of the environmental effects of our modern lifestyle when aerial photographs showed a reduction in air pollution as one region of the world after another was forced to shut down its economy to fight the pandemic. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also plunged as we drove our cars less and air travel almost stopped.
These consequences I might have expected, but it was an article in the farm newspaper Farmtario that really opened my eyes. It seems that our weather forecasts are less reliable than normal because of the decline in commercial air travel.
The fascinating item came from a study published in the American Geosciences Union Journal, which noted that the world lost 75 per cent of its aircraft weather observations as airlines shut down between March and May. Next to satellite data, commercial aircraft are the second-most important airborne source of information for weather forecasting. Moreover, because aircraft are physically present inside the actual weather system, rather than looking down from above, aircraft data is more accurate.
Apparently, commercial aircraft have sensors that are constantly monitoring temperature, relative humidity, air pressure and wind along their flight path and they are transmitting this information to agencies such as the United States National Center for Environmental Prediction and the World Meteorological Organization. With so many fewer commercial aircraft flying, there’s much less information, hurting the accuracy of weather forecasting. Who knew?
We’ve also learned lessons about our food system. The use of temporary foreign workers on Canadian farms isn’t a complete surprise to people who live in a place like Blyth where G. L. Hubbard Limited’s rutabaga operation has been importing workers for years, often the same people summer after summer who are familiar in the community. Some pig farms also use imported workers to make up for a lack of people who want to work in their barns.
But even those of us who were aware of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program probably had no idea how big it is. I certainly was ignorant of the fact that nearly 60,000 people come from places like Jamaica and Mexico to work on Canadian farms, helping plant and harvest crops or work in greenhouses.
The pandemic’s influence in our education on the work that goes into growing our food began in the spring when producers of early crops like asparagus worried that, due to travel restrictions, they might not have the foreign workers in time to pick their crop. Not only was it hard for the workers to get to Canada from their own countries, with few flights taking place, but once they arrived they had to quarantine for two unproductive weeks at a great expense to the farmers.
Awareness of foreign workers really increased when COVID-19 infection rates exploded in areas like the Windsor-Essex region where there were many foreign workers. Workers came to Canada disease-free, but contracted disease in their local communities and, working closely together, and often living in close quarters, the disease spread quickly. Tragically, three workers died from their infections.
These illnesses and deaths caught the attention of the public, the narrative shaped by groups like the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change which portrayed farm employers as exploiting their workers. Probably some employers were, since there are all sorts of people, good and greedy, in any occupation. But the fact that many of these workers return year after year shows they must benefit. A Mexican farm worker can earn as much in one day in Canada as he makes in a week back home.
I suspect that most employers would prefer to hire locally if they could. It costs money to provide accommodation for workers and the red tape of importing workers must be irritating. Some people argue farmers could attract more Canadian workers if they simply paid more. Perhaps, but the truth is that we’ve advanced so far in Canada that few of our own people have any interest in working in hot fields.
As well, are consumers willing to pay the price for fruit and vegetables that would be required to pay wages high enough to attract workers, given our high cost of living in Canada? Or would we simply buy more imported food grown in countries with cheap labour?
As a bonus, if you consider that 60,000 migrant workers are sending the bulk of their wages home to their families, the program amounts to a tremendous foreign aid program, with hundreds of millions of dollars transferred to poor families elsewhere in the world.