Why is food so expensive

Gisèle Yasmeen is a senior researcher at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia

In May, Statistics Canada reported that Canadians were paying almost 10% more for food than they did in 2021: meat and fresh fruit increased by 10%, rice by around 7% and pasta by almost 20%. percent. That means it will cost $966 more to feed an average family of four this year, according to the Canadian Food Prices Report.

Recently, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken summed up accelerating food price inflation to three Cs: COVID, climate, and conflict. Repeated closures, migrant labor shortages and strained supply chains are reflected in the register. Last year, droughts in South America devastated countries that supply half of the world’s soybeans, and in Ukraine, often called “the breadbasket of the world”, the war with Russia is now interrupting wheat harvests, barley, corn and sunflower.

Poverty and inequality are the main drivers of food insecurity. When food is consistently treated as a market driven commodity, you inevitably get the kind of price volatility that Canadians are seeing right now. Access to food should be treated as a right and not as a purchasing decision. I’m not talking about flat screen TVs here; I’m talking about the necessities of life. The best examples of what Canadians can achieve when we broaden our thinking are our publicly funded health care and education systems. They are far from perfect, but they are resources that citizens feel they are entitled to now, and that has not always been the case.

The current shock of grocery labels should be motivation enough for governments to explore public procurement from small producers of regenerative and organic foods. It’s easier to start in hospitals and schools, and Canada could learn from other countries: in 2010, Italy passed a bill requiring schools to use local organic produce to prepare meals from scratch in their own cafeterias. German public schools have started providing pupils with full, hot meals – not just snacks – as they return to in-person learning. Currently, Canada is the only G7 country that does not have a national school feeding program. Providing every child, K-12, with access to a healthy snack or meal at school would reduce pressure on family budgets.

Right now, initiatives are patchy across the country, but at least the provinces have started to invest. Prince Edward Island has its own government-subsidized school feeding program. It’s a pay-as-you-go model that covers two weeks of lunches for up to $5 per meal. Many experts believe it has the potential to evolve. In 2020, Quebec expanded eligibility for its school lunch program – previously limited to low-income families – to include all preschool, elementary and high school students. And Alberta renewed funding for its school nutrition program, despite a change in government a few years ago.

In 2022, the food supply chain is dominated by a handful of large transnational players, from farm to fork. For example, three supermarket chains — Loblaw Companies Ltd., Empire Company Ltd. (which owns Sobeys) and Metro Inc. — earn 60 cents on every dollar Canadians spend on groceries. Small producers, processors and distributors, as well as wholesalers and retailers, stand to benefit from a change. Half of the food businesses in Canada are micro-enterprises, that is, family businesses. It would be nice to support them with government money so they can earn a decent living.

Quebec is a good case study. Since the pandemic, there has been a growing movement in the province to prioritize its own food production. Protecting Canada’s domestic food production is a key part of controlling food prices, but there is no magic formula that will solve the current affordability crisis. It is crucial for Canada to reduce its dependence on global trade in order to feed its own population. And that will be important long after fruit and vegetable prices return to normal.


This is part of Maclean’s Guide to the Economy, which appeared in the September 2022 issue. Read the rest of the feature, order your copy of the issue and subscribe to the magazine.

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