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If your job is to feed people, the coming population implosion presents a challenge

Sylvain CharleboisCanada’s population grew by more than one million for the first time in its history in 2022. The population in Prince Edward Island grew the most, with a jump of 4.3 percent in only one year, followed by Alberta at 3.7 percent, and Nova Scotia in third place with a jump of 3.5 percent. Canada’s population could reach 40 million by June of this year. As of last fall, the world’s population has already reached eight billion.

Demographic growth will help grocers and the rest of the food supply chain, with food expenditures increasing by $3.6 billion. This is because there are over one million more mouths to feed and the consumer needs to spend an average of $3,500 to eat this year. Good news for the industry, but the party won’t last.

For the longest time, demographic experts have been concerned about the planet’s overpopulation. Most of them are now more concerned about a declining population. Some are even talking about a demographic implosion, suggesting that the earth will never reach nine billion inhabitants. In fact, some experts predict that the earth’s population could start declining in less than 20 years. Canada’s population could peak within that time frame as well. If your job is to feed people, this type of decline presents a challenge.

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In most areas of the world, including Canada, people are having fewer children. About 75 percent of the world has a birth rate below replacement levels. Canada is relying heavily on immigration to support its demographic ambitions, but we will reach a point when that option is no longer there, either. Immigration rules are being tightened across the Western World. The recent closure of Roxham Road in Quebec is one of many examples.

Despite generous social programs to support families, many expect birth or replacement rates to continue declining. There isn’t any dominant factor to explain this trend. Citizens everywhere are just having fewer children for numerous reasons.

What’s more, the demographic gap between the young and the not-so-young is growing. The number of people between the ages of 25 and 64 – those who significantly contribute to our economy – will continue to shrink.

Therefore, the size of our population won’t be the main challenge for our food industry. The age of the population, however, should be the focus. The food industry needs to embrace the massive social change that is about to hit the world.

Not having children is not necessarily a problem, but not planning for it certainly is. In the Western world, childlessness is slowly becoming a social norm which few governments have considered or accepted, at least not publicly. We need to accept that fewer people will have children. To respond to this, policies will have to support a reversed demographic pyramid, with fewer working adults, while supporting more seniors.

Pets are the new children. There are over 16 million pet cats and dogs in Canada. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of pet owners has increased by at least 15 percent, according to some reports. Pets are less costly and are arguably less life-changing than children. The commitment is simply different in many ways. For the food industry, that is certainly an area of tremendous growth to consider. With fewer children will come a greater number of pets.

The food industry will need to come to terms with a declining market and fewer physically abled workers. With fewer stomachs to fill, not having enough farmland should be less of a concern. Since 40 percent of the Canadian population lives in the major cities of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary, we need to figure out a way to re-purpose our rural areas.

In processing, distribution, and retail, we see the same challenges. With both a shrinking and aging market, health and convenience will likely drive sales even more in years to come. We have seen nothing yet. And as for shrinkflation, since older people tend to eat less, this annoying trend of seeing smaller quantities with higher prices is far from over. The food industry will continue its quest to increase sales with less volume. Pre-cut, pre-prepared, pre-cooked, pre-this, pre-that, will be the main way to maintain sales levels.

So, if you think we’re not going to have enough food for everyone, think again. The world will continue to produce enough food with better precision agriculture, more sustainable practices, automation, the use of artificial intelligence, and sound distribution practices, which will improve over time.

The food industry is only one problem. Real estate, pension funds, healthcare, social programs, government debt – all of these aspects will need to be modified because there will soon be fewer people. And the planning needs to start now.

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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