Let’s Put Food Cost in Context: Canadians Get a Sweet Deal

If you believe the headlines this week, Canadians will soon not be able to afford to eat. Fruit and vegetables will be beyond an ordinary person’s capacity to pay and consumers wanting to chomp down on a piece of meat will have to order horse, bison or ostrich because beef and pork will break their bank.

The fury erupted after the University of Guelph’s Food Institute released its Food Price Report indicating that food prices are set to outpace general inflation by 2 to 4%. It predicted the average Canadian annual household food bill will rise by an estimated $345 in 2016. Of course much of the increase is due to a tumbling Canadian dollar. Consumer trends and climate factors also play a role, notes the Food Institute in its release.

Unfortunately, the Food Institute’s release and reporters’ coverage offers little context for how abundant, safe and cheap Canadian food really is. This point was raised by University of Guelph professor and report co-author Sylvain Charlebois in several media reports, but it’s hard to shine a light under a cloud of higher price doom and gloom. In a Global News report Charlebois noted that Canada still has relatively low food prices and high quality, but the comment lay buried beneath an avalanche of food price despair.

So what’s missing from the vast majority of these food cost stories? Let’s talk content. Yes, Canadians may have to pay a little more, but we’re really getting a sweet deal every time we walk into our local supermarket. Consider these facts, which you can find in Farm & Food Care’s Real Dirt on Farming publication:

  • Canadians spend only 9.6 cents of every dollar they earn on food. Only US and UK consumers spend less. Mexicans spend 25 cents of every dollar on food; Russians spend 31 cents; in Pakistan, people spend 47 cents, according to United States Department of Agriculture.
  • In 2015, Canada’s “Food Freedom Day” was Feb. 6. That’s the date when the average Canadian has earned enough income to pay their grocery bill for the year. (In 2014 it was Feb. 7.)
  • The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada are world-class regulators. They’re leaders in establishing and enforcing some of the toughest food safety standards in the world.
  • 97% of Canadian farms are family-owned and operated. The growing notion that ‘corporate farms’ feed Canadians is a myth. Family farms help keep rural communities vibrant and feed urban consumers’ insatiable appetite for locally grown food.
  • Let’s talk about something else that’s going up. In 1901, the average Canadian farmer produced enough food to feed 10 people. In 2011, the average farmer was feeding more than 120 people.
  • What about the farm environment? Most of the farmers I know hail from generational farms. They live on their farms, they drink the water, eat the food they produce and take their commitment to the environment and land stewardship very seriously. They want to leave the land in good shape for future generations. I wonder how many Ontarians know that farmers in the province have invested more than $600 million in on-farm environmental improvements over the past 20 years since the Environmental Farm Plan program was established?

And that’s just a small fraction of the story. Unfortunately, these perspectives rarely make it into media reports that shape the public perception of our nation’s food supply; if it does, it’s lost or buried. It’s a story that all farmers should know and share. Next time you’re talking food with a consumer, whether they be your friend, neighbour, doctor, teacher, lawyer or a media reporter, be sure to talk context, not just cost. It’s a great story.

Related: Caution: This Headline Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story — Putting News in Context