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Production and transportation costs and the impact of climate change on agriculture are all having an impact on food prices

Sylvain CharleboisThe 2024 Food Price Report from Dalhousie University, in collaboration with the Universities of Guelph, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia, uncovers a multifaceted and intricate food pricing landscape in Canada. This intricate landscape is influenced by a wide range of factors that go beyond what you see on the grocery store shelves.

The report predicts that food prices will increase by as much as 4.5 percent in 2024, with meat, vegetables, and bakery products driving food inflation higher at the grocery store. While many Canadians may hope for price drops, it’s essential to understand that the issue is entangled with the complexities of the global economy, and no nation is immune to worldwide uncertainties.

As most Canadians are aware, except for those who subscribe to the notion that food prices are solely driven by one individual or one company, the persistent rise in food prices reflects broader inflationary trends affecting the economy. This surge in costs is not isolated to food alone; it’s a symptom of increased expenses in production, transportation, and the ripple effects of global economic shifts. These elements collectively contribute to the steady climb in food pricing, making it a multifaceted economic issue.

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Climate change also plays a crucial role in shaping the food pricing narrative. Extreme weather events directly impact agricultural productivity, disrupting crop yields and the availability of essential food products. These incidents are a stark reminder of the food supply chain’s vulnerability to environmental changes and the urgent need for resilient and sustainable agricultural practices. Whether we employ carbon taxing or a cap-and-trade system, decarbonizing the food economy should remain a priority.

In response to rising costs, Canadian consumers are adapting their spending habits. There’s a noticeable shift towards more budget-conscious shopping, with consumers increasingly seeking value and adjusting their dietary choices in light of price hikes. This change in consumer behaviour is a critical aspect of the food pricing equation, influencing retail and production strategies across the food industry. The recent string of interest rate hikes by the Bank of Canada has had a significant impact on households across the country, forcing many to reduce their food spending despite inflation.

The past year has been challenging, but there are signs of improvement as consumers gradually reallocate their budgets away from mortgage and rent payments towards food expenditures.

As we near the anticipated food inflation rate target of 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent, which is likely to be achieved in 2024, consumers should have specific expectations of our policymakers. The implementation of regulatory measures, such as a code of conduct for grocery stores, reflects a growing recognition of the necessity for increased oversight in the food retail sector. This initiative is aimed at restoring a fair balance in terms of costs and profits within the food supply chain, ultimately safeguarding consumers, promoting fairness in business practices, and fostering healthy competition. It’s important to highlight that Loblaw and Walmart currently wield significant influence in the industry, which calls for attention to ensure consumer benefits.

Canadians have valid concerns regarding the influence of companies like Loblaw and Walmart. Their practice of charging more fees to suppliers, who then raise prices to compensate for these elevated fees, ultimately leads to consumers bearing the burden. If Ottawa is genuinely committed to stabilizing food prices, it should make the Grocer Code of Conduct mandatory, ensuring that both Loblaw and Walmart adhere to it. This move would be in the interest of fostering competition and improving the food supply chain for the benefit of all Canadians.

Failure to do so may raise questions about potential inappropriate political interference between some grocers and the Liberal party.

The insights gleaned from Canada’s Food Price Report 2024 underscore the potential for Ottawa to make a difference with strong leadership. While Loblaw and Walmart are well-managed companies that have reaped the benefits of their success, their influence in the food industry has become a concern for the broader population.

Addressing this issue is crucial for the well-being of Canadian consumers and the overall health of the food supply chain.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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