Canadian food prices are on track for the biggest annual increase in 20 years.
The cost of a broad food basket rose 4.8 per cent in November, over last year’s price. That number is made up by a hike of 5.7 per cent at grocery stores and a rise of three per cent for restaurant food.
According to Statistics Canada, the staples of most Canadian tables lead the index: potatoes cost 20.3 per cent more than they did last year; bread rose 11.9 per cent; eggs, 12.3 per cent; and vegetables are up 15.8 per cent.
What perverse sort of person would look for a silver lining in numbers that reduce discretionary incomes of the working class, or in forces that cause more stress on the poor? Well, as they say: glad to meet you.
Three decades ago, when all the newspapers were railing against the evils of inflation, Canadian families spent a quarter of their after-tax income on food. Today, although food prices continue to rise, that average is closer to 10 per cent.
Never in written history has a generation expended fewer hours of labour each day to secure its daily bread. The era of cheap food is ending, and there are some reasons for us, if not to rejoice at its passing, to at least look forward to available solutions that make the best of it.
Market experts tell us there are two major forces behind a global rise in food prices. One is the end of cheap fossil fuel.
It touches the ironic that urbanites across North America who despise Alberta for selling bitumen from the oilsands will happily get into oversized vehicles to buy freshly-picked lettuce from Mexico or cherries from Argentina — in the middle of winter.
How do those tonnes and tonnes of exotic produce get onto the store shelves in such good condition, at such cheap prices?
The other major force is that exporting countries are setting limits on how much food they will export. The Globe and Mail reported three examples: Argentina’s soybeans, Viet Nam’s rice and Russia’s wheat. People who are less rich than Europeans and North Americans need protection from their own food exporters (often multinational corporations), who will let the locals go hungry while they chase the highest bidder.
So where’s the silver lining? Look no further than our own farmers market, and the prospect of our own year-round indoor local market.
For example: locally grown carrots are available already at a small market in Red Deer. Without exaggeration, they are superior in every way to the carrots shipped in from Texas or California. But they do cost more.
As the cost of shipping and other fossil-fuel based inputs like fertilizer and pesticides rise, so will the cost of those comparably tasteless imported carrots. Perhaps to the point where the local product can compete on a large scale.
Local growers are increasing their presence in our own markets, but they still often occupy niches that require much labour for not much return.
As imported vegetables rise in cost, perhaps we will see an increase in local production, which can finally get big enough to make use of mechanization and economies of scale.
We grow the best wheat in the world; it makes the best bread. Likewise our lentils and pulse crops. You can see in your own backyard garden that many varieties of vegetables and fruit thrive here.
There are more than 100 apple varieties hardy to this region, but which are only grown by hobbyists because they do not ship well over long distances.
It appears that inflation in food prices is going to continue — economists at food giant General Mills expect the trend to continue for 20 years.
There is a new “normal” coming. Those who are prepared for it might even prosper.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.