Canadian families will pay nearly $500 more in 2020 for food, report says

The average Canadian family will pay up to an extra $487 for food next year, according to an annual report that highlights climate change as a big culprit for rising prices, especially in the produce department.

Unexpected snowstorms, droughts and other weather events have impacted crops and food prices in the past, said Simon Somogyi, lead researcher from Ontario’s University of Guelph.

But for 2020, he and others behind “Canada’s Food Price Report 2019,” the eighth edition, highlight climate change.

“We’re deliberately pointing out that, you know: climate change is causing the droughts, is causing the bad snowstorms that’s impacting prices,” he said, citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on Oct. 8.

The report calls the impact of changing weather patterns on our food systems through droughts, forest fires, heavy precipitation, reduced freshwater access and rising sea levels “the elephant in the room” for 2020.

“Canadian farmers will face challenges in the future dealing with unpredictable crop yields, heat-wave livestock threats, pasture availability, and pest and disease outbreaks,” reads the report from researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the University of Guelph.

That link between climate change and food prices comes with a forecast that the average Canadian family will spend $12,667 on food at grocery stores and restaurants in 2020.

That’s two to four per cent more than in 2019 — though the researchers expect it to be closer to the top end of that range. It’s the second-highest prediction since 2013, outdone only by an anticipated three to five per cent, or $420, rise for 2017. The algorithm provides a two per cent range for the national forecast.

Inflation factors into what’s spent on food

Canadians also face relatively steady inflation. The consumer price index rose 1.9 per cent year over year in October, according to Statistics Canada — the same increase as the previous two months. Increases have remained below 2.5 per cent since Sept. 2018.

A hotter climate is one factor behind an increase in bacterial outbreaks such as E. coli, Somogyi said, as hotter temperatures and unpredictable heat waves increase bacterial growth. In recent years, multiple E. coli outbreaks prompted grocers to pull romaine lettuce off their shelves and restaurants to stop serving the leafy green, which tend to drive up prices for alternatives, like spinach.

Produce prices also trend up because Canada imports vast amounts of its food as the colder weather limits what can be grown. Imported goods can fluctuate in price due to trade issues creating slowdowns at borders or weather events impacting delivery logistics.

Food trends can also prompt price swings. This year, celery costs skyrocketed partly due to a fad diet based on purported health benefits of celery juice. In May, one major Canadian grocer advertised celery stalks for $5.99 online — compared to a more typical, roughly $3-per-kilogram cost for much of the years prior to April 2018, when Statistics Canada stopped tracking the vegetable.

‘They see the planet on their dinner plates’

It’s difficult to put a number on how much of the anticipated 2020 food price increase comes from climate change, said Somogyi, but it is responsible for “the bulk” of last year’s vegetable sticker shock. In the case of the catapulting celery costs, months of unseasonably cold weather and heavy rainfall in California created supply issues.

But the stability of food supply isn’t climate change’s sole casualty, as it sparks changes to demand too, said Sylvain Charlebois, lead author from Dalhousie University.

“People, when they think about food, they see the planet on their dinner plates much more so than ever before,” he said.

Younger generations especially decide what to eat in part by looking at the environmental impact of their meals, said Charlebois, and turn more toward full or partial plant-based diets. Fast-food chains and manufacturers raced to stock and create products to feed this demographic with Beyond Meat and Lightlife alternatives now ubiquitous at restaurants across Canada.

Somogyi anticipates climate change will continue to boost food prices, particularly in categories where Canada relies heavily on imports, unless big changes occur.

In particular, he’d like to see a national food policy that focuses on producing more high-cost items, like many vegetables, in Canada through vertical and indoor farming. That would reduce time to market, costs and risks of bacterial outbreaks, he said.

“If we maintain our current food, Canadian food distribution structure, I can see that happening each year — four per cent, 10 per cent, 15 per cent.”

Federal food policy released in June

The federal government released a long-awaited food policy in June 2019 — the first in Canada — after starting public consultations in 2017. The policy addressed four significant areas for short- and long-term action, including:

  • Boosting community access to healthy food.
  • Making Canadian food a top choice domestically and internationally.
  • Supporting food security in northern and Indigenous communities.
  • Reducing food waste.

Certain initiatives announced as part of the food policy could support vertical or indoor farming, said Agriculture Canada spokesperson James Watson in an email.

The department is also exploring vertical and container agriculture beyond the food policy, he said, pointing to a August 2017 workshop it held where experts identified research and development needs in this area.

“Vertical and greenhouse production show potential for increasing food security [particularly in remote areas of Canada], decreasing transportation costs and increased health for Canadians.”

Agriculture Canada is working with others to optimize these farming systems so they can complement traditional ones, he said.

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