Anyone who’s shopped for groceries, gone to a restaurant or had any dealings with foodstuffs knows his or her wallet took a big hit in 2022. There’s little relief in sight this year.
Anyone in the market for groceries – and that’s all of us, one way or another – will have noticed rapid and significant price hikes, the result, we’re told, of escalating commodity prices and the cost of transportation.
A new report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says food prices globally rose 14.3 per cent last year, the highest level since the food price index began recording data in 1990.
The index had already gained 28 per cent in 2021 from the previous year as the world economy recovered from the impact of the pandemic.
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Food prices surged after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February on fears of disruptions to Black Sea trade. They have pared some of their gains since, in part because of a UN-backed grain export channel from Ukraine and the prospect of improved supplies in producing countries, but much uncertainly remains. And uncertainly leads to instability, higher costs and price gouging (i.e.greedflation).
In Canada, the annual Food Price Report found an average family of four spent some $15,200 on groceries in 2022, up almost a thousand dollars from the year before. And while the rate of inflation is predicted to slow, that same average family will have to find almost $1,100 more to keep themselves fed, with spending estimated at $16,300.
Canada’s Food Price Report is an annual collaboration between research partners Dalhousie University, the University of Guelph, the University of Saskatchewan, and the University of British Columbia. For 2023, the study predicts consumers can expect food prices to continue to rise by an estimated five to seven per cent, with the most substantial increases in vegetables, dairy, and meat.
The report’s authors suggest worried consumers need to be smart shoppers by checking flyers for specials, creating and sticking to a budget and shopping list, looking for substitutes for expensive foods (such as frozen fruits and vegetables instead of fresh, and plant-based proteins like chickpeas or lentils instead of meat), or freezing meat when it comes on sale.
“We haven’t seen food prices increase this high in Canada for over 40 years and based on our findings, the increases we have predicted are still quite high but not as high as the increases for 2022,” said Dr. Simon Somogyi of the University of Guelph. “That may be cold comfort for Canadians, as food prices are already high, but if inflation can come down, it’s possible that we could see price increases for 2023 at or below five per cent.”
“To say that it’s been a challenging year for Canadians at the grocery store would be an understatement,” added Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, project lead and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “Consumers will continue to get smarter about grocery shopping as they navigate through this so-called food inflation storm.”
What most consumers can’t expect is much in the way of help from political quarters: taxes will continue to rise even as Canadians deal with rising prices for essentials.
That’s certainly true locally when it comes to plans for large property tax increases and no sign of restraint or proper prioritizing of expenses by municipal governments. Taxes will be boosted well beyond wage gains most residents can expect to see in 2023. It will be citizens that will have to make the budgetary choices that politicians are unwilling to make.
When it comes to food, we’ll be looking for cheaper alternatives or doing without some items altogether. Skyrocketing prices are also likely to make us more mindful of food waste.
Some 58 per cent of food produced in Canada is lost or wasted each year somewhere along the chain from farm to fork. That’s about 35.5 million tonnes valued at $50 billion. Some 4.82 million tonnes of food, or nearly $21 billion worth, is lost or wasted during the processing and manufacturing process. Some 2.38 million tonnes of food, or more than $10 billion worth, is lost at the consumer level.
Food that is grown, raised, caught, or harvested, but never eaten, is considered to be food loss and waste. For example, a piece of fruit that is damaged during transport; food items in grocery stores that spoil before they can be sold; leftovers from a meal prepared at home that are not eaten; or food dishes prepared in a restaurant that are never served and are instead discarded.
All told, the annual cost of avoidable food loss and waste in Canada is $1,766 per household.
About a third of what we waste is food that could be rescued, redirected instead to food banks and other areas in need. Recovery of surplus food to feed people is not in itself a solution to food insecurity, but the best use of food is when it’s consumed by people rather than, say, being recycled or, worse yet, simply sent to landfill. The recovery process involves both redirecting items to food banks or use by commercial operations to create new food products.
Food waste is especially prevalent in North America, of course, where we’re rich enough to do so. Not that we don’t complain about the price of food nonetheless.
When we buy two-for-one deals or choose larger packages but let the extra items spoil, we’re contributing to the problem. (The same is true of producers who package and market foodstuffs in a way that makes smaller portions less economical.) We throw away items that have passed their best-before dates but are still good. As with the supermarkets, we toss produce that looks a little blemished but is fine in reality.
When we toss food, all the resources to grow, ship and produce it get chucked, too, including massive volumes of water, for instance. We also need to consider the energy and resources expended in bringing food to our tables. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, if food waste were a country, it would have the third-biggest carbon footprint after the US and China.
Moreover, research shows food waste contributes an estimated eight per cent of all greenhouse gases worldwide.
In that vein, about 25 per cent of Canada’s methane emissions (a greenhouse gas that traps 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide) come from landfills. That’s the rationale behind diversion programs such as the green bin employed in Waterloo Region.
Officials stress that by taking action on food waste, we can save money, protect the environment and create new business opportunities for our agri-food entrepreneurs. And we can help the country take steps towards meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goal to cut global food waste in half by 2030.
While farmers, processors and retailers are doing more to prevent loss and waste, we can have an impact at the individual level by making small changes that start with being conscious of the problem. That should also help in countering rising prices – as noted, we’re the only ones looking out for our wallets.