Getting a veggie fix in the face of rising prices not always easy
The Food Price Report 2019, recently released by Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph, suggests that vegetable prices will go up by as much as six per cent next year.The six-per-cent increase is in addition to the 4.8-per-cent hike that vegetable prices underwent already in 2018. Given that we could experience a second consecutive year of significant price increases, many wonder whether eating local produce is the better option.Well ... not quite.Global supply chains have allowed us to become more efficient and have given consumers more choices and affordable food products, but eating local has its advantages, too. The environmental case for eating local is almost undisputed. You can significantly reduce your carbon footprint just by increasing your locally grown food consumption. One other advantage of local foods is price consistency. That’s right, prices are perhaps generally higher but much less volatile when short-circuit distribution systems are involved.Case in point: the romaine lettuce disaster in November. Grown in California and Arizona, fresh lettuce is delivered to Canadians at a decent price. But with the recent e-coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, not only did some people get sick, the prices of leafy greens in Canada skyrocketed. With the Canadian Food Inspection Agency preventing romaine lettuce from coming into Canada, importers had to procure similar products elsewhere, and likely paid more to get these precious salad greens into our stores. Consumers will want their leafy greens, even in winter, no matter what.Many envy the stability and sustainability of local food systems. They are easily containable and, frankly, conveniently manageable. Unlike global supply chain systems, transparency is a non-issue, since most producers usually know each other.Simplicity has its virtues, but it also comes at a cost. Local foods are typically 20 per cent to 40 per cent more expensive than the cheapest imported substitutes available in the same marketplace.Research shows that city dwellers are more likely to favour locally grown or manufactured food products, for the simple fact that agriculture is often a distant concept to them. Buying local is the one way to feel a real connection with agriculture and farmers. There is also more wealth in cities versus rural communities. Although price remains a consideration for urban dwellers, it is more important to less wealthy consumers living in rural areas. And that is where global supply chains come in.The fact that Canada is an open economy has both advantages and drawbacks. Given that Canadians have access to the fifth most affordable food basket in the world, relative to household income, global supply chains appear to be serving them well.So, don’t despair: getting our vegetable fix from all over the world is not such a bad idea. Our nordic climate does not give us many options. But global supply chains do come with their fair share of risks, which in turn generate price volatility.And buying local produce can be critical to our agri-food economy. In many parts of the country, it is apparent that local vegetable production is a priority, through vertical farms, greenhouses using novel technologies, and other initiatives. Access to more locally grown vegetables, and striking a balance between local and global, will be key.But price hikes affecting vegetables are a challenge for many right now, especially those with limited means. As such, visiting the freezer aisle may not be such a bad idea. It may not taste the same as the fresh version, but you will get the same nutritional value out of these frozen veggies.Finally, one piece of good news: authors of the Food Price Report 2019 do suggest the price of both meat and fish products will drop next year, by up to three per cent. This is a first in the study’s nine-year history. So, meat lovers can rejoice and can do their own happy dance around the BBQ next summer. Just don’t forget to eat your veggies. Sylvain Charlebois is professor in Food Distribution and Policy, and Senior Director, Agrifood Analytics Lab, at Dalhousie University.
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