By John Jamieson
Food inflation remains frustratingly high, and consumers are finding it difficult to understand why. Especially as commentators, politicians and media headlines seek attention by finger-pointing. But the fact is that there is no single reason and no one entity is to blame. Food inflation is a global issue right now, and several factors have collided simultaneously to create the perfect storm.
As consumers, every time we step into the grocery store, we feel the effects of inflation. With the cost of living – including rent, gas, and heat – up over the past year, it’s easy to be frustrated that the cost of food has outpaced the cost of living. And as a society, we’ve been relatively fortunate for many years. In fact, the last time we saw inflation this high was 40 years ago.
So, what is happening? In the 1980s, the oil crisis helped push inflation into the double digits. This time, as I mentioned, a confluence of factors is hiking the price of almost everything, but food in particular.
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated an existing labour shortage that was years in the making. This shortage is affecting salaries and production capacities across the food system and causing supply-chain bottlenecks.
For all farmers, the cost of animal feed, fertilizer, fuel for farm equipment and transportation have all increased over the past year. And poultry farmers have had to contend with avian influenza, with some farms culling entire flocks. The outcome for consumers is higher store prices for poultry products.
The ongoing war in Ukraine is also piling on pressure. Ukraine is one of the biggest agricultural producers in the world, producing grain, sunflower oil, and fertilizer.
To aggravate the situation, climate change has impacted the growth and productivity of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia, which is driving up its cost. Canada and the US have both experienced drought and floods that have impacted our harvests as well. The result is higher prices for cooking oils and staples like bread, cereals, and pasta.
These issues have converged to make the overall cost of food more expensive. Finding someone to blame for a problem is much easier than finding solutions to fix it, so we should not be surprised that there is a lot of finger-pointing going on, when in fact, there is no single culprit.
It’s understandable to be angry, food prices are overwhelming many individuals and families and creating greater food insecurity. But compared to much of the world, Canada still has a secure supply of nutritious food that is reasonably affordable.
On average, Canadians spent 11 per cent of their disposable income on food last year, the second lowest rate in the world after the U.S. Because incomes are considerably higher in Canada than in the rest of the world, the portion of income we allocate to food is still relatively small.
As consumers, we could be spending our energy on learning more about how our national food system works, so we have a better understanding of the impacts the economy, climate change and geopolitical events have on it.
There is reliable information available on the Internet from credible sources. It does take time and effort, but the payoff is having a better understanding of the challenges our food system faces.
John Jamieson is the president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.