Is food inflation here to stay?

The climate emergency is threatening food systems, pushing prices sky high

As we approach Thanksgiving weekend, a time when food plays a central role in many family traditions, consumers will likely notice the cost of those traditions is considerably more than it once was.

According to BetterCart, a data mining company that monitors food prices across the country daily, some of the common items at this year’s Thanksgiving meal will be significantly more expensive than they were last year. Expect your potatoes and butter to cost 25.6% and 19.1% more, respectively. 

Food price inflation affects all Canadians regardless of their dietary preferences, or incomes. Currently, the food inflation rate in Canada is close to 5%. Every year, the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie releases Canada’s Food Price Report, in partnership with the University of British Columbia, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Guelph, which predicts food price inflation. The 2021 report forecasts that overall food prices will increase by up to 5%, well above the normal rate of 1 to 2%, describing the food price situation we are witnessing right now across the country. 

And price increases could affect many Thanksgivings to come, as the climate emergency wreaks havoc on our food systems. 

Drivers of food price inflation

Many common staples of Canadian diets, including meat, bread and centre-of-the-store grocery items, have increased in price because of myriad complicated macroeconomic shocks. Supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, labour shortages experienced by Canadian trading partners, and rising freight costs contribute to higher prices on grocery store shelves.

As Canada reaches its vaccine thresholds, demand for food, from restaurants as well as from a revival in home cooking, has put pressure on the prices of both meat and feed grains such as soybeans or corn, in addition to other popular items in retail stores. 

We also have the climate emergency to thank for food inflation. Recent reports suggest Canada is warming at twice the global rate. The wildfires in British Columbia, drought conditions in the Prairies, increased tornado activity in Ontario and Quebec, and more-active-than-normal hurricane seasons in the Atlantic have all impacted the food supply chain. 

Drought in the Prairies has led to smaller harvests of feed grains and produce, as water scarcity and heat become an issue for both farmers and their livestock. This has forced farmers to temporarily reduce the size of their herds, causing meat prices to increase significantly. Wildfires in California and British Columbia impact the price of regional fruit and vegetables at retail as much seasonal and out-of-season produce is imported from those regions. 

How agriculture is driving the climate emergency

Despite efforts in recent years, global agriculture remains a high-carbon, energy-heavy endeavour. Almost 8% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agricultural practices. Heavy equipment powered by fossil fuels is needed to till fields, plant seeds, apply fertilizers, harvest, and transport meat, grains or produce to their next stop on the supply chain. Industrial livestock operations can release high levels of nitrogen and methane. Nitrogen fertilizer, commonly used on Canadian farms, produces nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

There are steps farmers can take to reduce the sector’s impacts on climate, which would help ensure food prices don’t get out of control in the future. These include using lower-carbon fertilizers and fuel sources and methane-capture systems for livestock and manure.

These significant price increases could affect many Thanksgivings to come, as the climate emergency wreaks havoc on our food systems.

While the agriculture sector takes steps to reduce its carbon footprint, diets lower in meat and higher in sustainable produce offer a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing consumer household food waste could lower emissions and improve food security and potentially lower prices at retail. From 2010 to 2016, global food waste contributed 8 to 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

To stem the rise of prices in the short-term, governments must also work to remove restrictions and bottlenecks on imports caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Items found on grocery store shelves are often imported, or wrapped in packaging that’s imported. Prices on these items rise as they are held up at borders because of restrictions on the personnel responsible for moving them. And the supply chain is still recovering from the closure of processing plants, both in Canada and abroad.

No end in sight for adverse weather effects

There is no one sector that is solely responsible for the carbon emissions that have led to the climate situation we are experiencing now. We can expect this to be the new normal. Indeed, record heat waves that are longer than a week’s duration will be two to seven times more likely. These record temperatures create the dry conditions that spark wildfires and water shortages and the increased frequency of weather events such as large hurricanes and tornadoes that ravage farms and disrupt food supply chains around the world, forcing food prices to rise year after year. 

Increased food prices affect everyone, but those consumers who are close to the poverty line or who have had their incomes disrupted by the pandemic will experience greater challenges as they try to stretch their grocery dollars. Women and people of colour, in particular, will feel the pinch of rising food costs. Yet food simply cannot be priced out of reach of vulnerable people.

While food inflation is impacted by a wide array of complicated factors, there’s no denying climate change is making food prices more volatile. Farmers continue to feed the world despite the impacts of the climate emergency. They can be a part of the solution by adopting practices that mitigate the release of greenhouse gases. Without bold action on climate, Thanksgiving dinner may be out of reach for an increasing number of people in the future. 

Janet Music is a research program coordinator at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain Charlebois is the senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

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