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Supper table conversations: food affordability

By: Mitchell Japp, PAg, Provincial Specialist, Cereal Crops

October 2016

February 9 is only 40 days into the calendar year, yet the quintessential average Canadian has earned enough money to cover their food costs for the entire year.  This is known as Food Freedom Day.  Forty days is 11 per cent of the year.

Food Freedom Day was actually three days later in 2016 than it was in 2015 – due largely to the low Canadian dollar.  Food prices in Canada rose 4.1 per cent in 2015, mostly due to exchange rates on imported goods.  Similarly, Canadians are more concerned about food affordability than they were in 2012, when asked about agriculture sustainability.  Although some imported items like fruits, vegetables and nuts fluctuate in price depending on the crop or exchange rate, for the most part, food prices in Canada are stable.

Discussion of Food Freedom Day centres on the idea of being free from further food bills (if various bills could be compartmentalized in separate seasons).  I think that it also relates to the freedom from actually having to worry about the price of food.  It is a freedom so many of us enjoy, but sadly not everyone.  Food Freedom Day is a call to be thankful for what we have, and a reminder to help those who need a hand.

Remembering the need for the affluent to lend a hand, the Province of Saskatchewan, PotashCorp and University of Saskatchewan partnered to found the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) in 2011. Part of food security relates to an inability to pay for food, but another relates to price volatility.

Volatility in food prices decreases food security.  Many different factors contribute to food security, but fluctuating prices is among them.  In 2008, the price of staple foods like wheat and rice increased substantially.  While Canadians may have observed increases, the increases were much more challenging for people in other parts of the world.

For Canadians that observe high grocery prices, it is worth taking a closer look at that grocery bill. Grocery stores are convenient stops to stock up on sundry items as well as food.  My own grocery bill regularly includes:  shampoo, dishwasher soap, razor blades, and sometimes kitchen utensils or even clothing.  Occasionally some chips, pop and candy sneak into my grocery cart as well.  Separating these items from food costs helps understand how affordable food really is.

In addition to non-food items, many Canadians make choices at the grocery store that lead to higher food costs.  Buying organic, local, non-GMO or to meet specific dietary needs may lead to higher costs. These are conscious decisions made for myriad reasons, such as taste, or knowing your farmer.  But, in most cases these remain choices that consumers make when safe, healthy, lower-cost alternatives exist.

Food costs have increased, but the proportion of income to pay for food is still relatively small (on average).  And, Canada remains one of the top places in the world, in terms of food affordability related to income.

Producers are probably more familiar with the low cost of food than anyone.  They recognize the prices they receive for their commodities are low.  Although year-to-year volatility exists, wheat prices have generally decreased since the 1800’s, when adjusted for inflation.  Commodities like wheat tend to decrease in price over time because of improvements in technology.

Farmers cannot be expected to feed the world for nothing, but competition and economics drives them to produce even more food.  The Global Institute for Food Security’s role is to help feed the world, by using innovations that benefit Saskatchewan and empower developing countries to achieve food security.

The technology that lowers prices is the same technology that makes more food available. Advancements in breeding have led to increased on-farm yields, both from increasing the yield potential and also from yield preservation by increasing resistance to diseases, pests or agronomic losses. Pesticides and biotech crops also help preserve yield from losses due to weeds, insects and disease.  It is estimated that without pesticides, food costs would rise by 55 per cent.  In Saskatchewan, zero-till technologies have made agriculture more productive by improving soil and virtually eliminating the need to summer fallow (a year with no crop production).  Farmers adopt new technologies readily because it makes them more efficient and productive.  When food commodities are in abundance, prices remain low.

When a basic human need like food can be met with such a small portion (11 per cent) of a person’s income, it frees that person to achieve more.  Whether they meet success in sport, literature, science, or simply live a healthier life, society as a whole is better for it.

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