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Understanding the vulnerabilities of Canada’s food supply chain

With few major corporations in Canada processing meat, unplanned intrusion—a global pandemic—can cause significant disruption to the country’s food supply ecosystem.

At the direction of Agriculture Agri-food Canada (AAFC) executives, a multi-disciplinary taskforce comprised of Market Service Industry Services, Science and Technology, and Strategic Policy branches, was created to understand the status, vulnerabilities and economic impacts of COVID-19 on Canada’s food supply. In addition, as COVID-19 has caused an abrupt change to consumer purchasing, it was important to the Government of Canada to understand the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic to the production, supply, movement and consumption of food.

Further, the location intelligence created by the group is now being used to understand and target new programs, gain insights on geographic patterns in existing programs and support evidence-based policies in the department.


Understanding the impacts of the new coronavirus to Canada’s food supply chain requires knowledge and understanding of the complex journey of each product in its respective food system:

Producer → Processor → Distributor → Retailer → Consumer → Food Recovery (Waste)

Contextualizing this information to enable decision-making required a spatial lens, i.e. geographically examining the point of production and analyzing the food system assets that play a part in the reliable and safe supply of food to homes, and the risks throughout the journey.

In consideration of these needs, the group acknowledged the significance of exposing the following data:

  • Volume of food consumption
  • Vulnerable populations
  • Critical infrastructure
  • Major food distributors and retails
  • Domestic food producers

Careful analysis and representation of the findings were critical for senior management to inform future programming decisions, such as which communities are most vulnerable.

In summary, in the face of uncertainty brought to the fore by a global pandemic, AAFC examined the local impacts of food and food supply to provide the best aid possible to Canadians. The taskforce had to:

  1. Determine which food assets were being impacted
  2. Identify the populations that were affected
  3. Understand the scale of the impacts – health, economic or social
  4. Provide support to the Government of Canada to mitigate impacts


It was important for the taskforce to capture the available information and make it accessible to all stakeholders to understand and perform their analysis. A central location on ArcGIS Hub was decided where all data is made accessible from. The Hub provided the team the ability to manage data access and data sources, perform analytics, collaborate, manage individual projects or link projects, and store reports.

Tabular data such as those representing the transportation of food assets from distributor to retailer were geo-coded in ArcGIS so the connectivity and dependencies across the food supply system could be visualized and easily understood by the multi-disciplinary team members across policy, market analyst and data science domains.

The AAFC taskforce explored four broad categories in their analysis:

a. Food System Assets

b. Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour

c. Food Transportation

d. Vulnerable Populations

The team included a wide-ranging dataset pulled from the internal data warehouse as well as partner government departments such as Statistics Canada and 3rd party data providers to generate visual dashboards for each of these categories. Data and indices on key socio-demographic data, household income, unemployed workforce, female parent household, and more, were included as key variables. 

GIS Analysts from the Science and Technology Branch exposed the data to the wider group via ArcGIS Online, and due to the web-enabled feature of Online and Hub, this was done without the need for programming.

Locally mapping the outbreak and monitoring the status around the food source areas was important as food supply began evidently declining at the retailers in Canada and elsewhere. It was critical to identify the scale of the problem, or if the issue rests on the transportation of food assets.

Using the ArcGIS platform, analysts were able to ingest source data from multiple GIS Hubs including the one from Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), perform analytics and deploy the mapped insights over the web and share with taskforce members. In doing so, the work became quickly grounded in geospatial, or location intelligence.

And because team members were sheltered-in-place, many at home, having cloud access to dynamic data in real-time became indispensable—even mission-critical, that it provided the ability to collaborate in real-time and share insights to get ahead of the supply chain issues. For example, using the Hub from ArcGIS Online, team members were able to understand and model the impact of the flow of food supply from the distributors if a transportation restriction were to be introduced.


The AAFC Science and Technology branch, together with Market Service Industry and Policy groups, collaborated on interactive map journals powered by the ArcGIS StoryMaps app that consolidated the team’s data and analysis on food system assets, labour, food and populations. They explored:

Food System Assets Labour Food Population
Identification of the physical location and contact information of key food system assets within a geographic area, including food supply chain businesses and food security organizations. Key demographic information on the food system workforce employed in that area. Estimate of the volume of key food commodities into and out of that area within a time period. Key demographic information for the population in that area, including COVID-19 prevalence, food insecurity rates, median income, food consumption patterns.

Delivered and shared via ArcGIS Hub, the map journal report provided government executives an effective medium to understand the critical linkages between the categories of focus.


The report mapped the pandemic outbreak and drew a critical lens to where agriculture workers and major food processing was occurring in the country. Data was dynamically pulled to reflect the fluidity of the outbreak to enable real-time understanding of the state of Canada’s food supply, such as the impact of food processing plant closures on the overstock of poultry and cattle, transportation bottlenecks and economic risk to sectors.

The Vulnerable Populations report was key to understanding where the concentration of people who may have a more challenging time dealing with food insecurities. The report overlaid data from the Canadian Community Health Survey Food Insecurity survey, Statistics Canada household data and health cases data from the pandemic outbreak to identify geographies that required particular attention.

The integrated report enabled government leaders to make data-driven decisions such as funding food banks and providing other assistance that would directly aid vulnerable populations in Canada.

About AAFC

The Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food (AAFC) is responsible for policies governing the production, processing, and marketing of all farm, food, and agri-based products.

The Department works closely with provincial and territorial governments in the development and delivery of policies and programs.