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Price of food goes up with the temperature

Aug 19 2012
Shoppers survey the wares Saturday at the James Bay market. Local foods could help minimize the effects of the U.S. drought, says Agricultural Minister Don McRae. 

Shoppers survey the wares Saturday at the James Bay market. Local foods could help minimize the effects of the U.S. drought, says Agricultural Minister Don McRae.

Photograph by: Lyle Stafford , timescolonist.com (August 2012)

The high price of corn, driven up by a searing drought in the United States, could be an indicator of more problems to come, says the executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.

Tom Pedersen, who is based at the University of Victoria, says high temperatures in the States have taken their toll on corn crops. As a result, corn was at its highest price ever at the end of July, which was the hottest July in the continental United States since weather statistics have been recorded.

"It's an extreme heat wave," Pedersen said. "I can't claim that it's because of human-induced global warming, but what the scientific community would claim with extreme confidence is that what we've done is 'loaded the dice.' We can anticipate increasing frequency of heat waves like this, these extreme temperature events, in the future."

Pedersen recalled the scenario in 2008, when rising corn prices led to riots in Mexico and across West Africa. In Canada, crop failures caused food inflation to go up by as much as 7.9 per cent.

"We might see a several per cent increase in our food costs here, but if you look at a country like Kenya or Mexico or Zambia - which have a corn-dominated basis for their nutritional supply - then the implications for those countries are far more severe than it is for us."

Saanich Coun. Dean Murdock, whose interest is linked to his chairman's role in the Healthy Saanich Advisory Committee, said the prominence of corn in many foods and its use as feed for livestock means store prices could take a real hit.

"It's going to drive up the price of everything from cereal to meat. You can't really avoid it at the grocery store."

While it's hard to say when the impact of damaged American crops could hit here, price jumps as high as four per cent were predicted for next year. Meat prices could rise even more.

"It's a bit like earthquake-preparedness," Murdock said. "It maybe isn't top-of-mind until something major happens."

Agriculture Minister Don McRae said in a statement that the diversity of B.C.'s food supply will make a difference in how any droughtrelated issues are felt.

"While B.C. consumers are affected by the laws of supply and demand, our agrifoods sector is Canada's most diverse and produces a large variety of fresh and healthy foods."

He said local food supply has taken on added prominence in recent years.

"The number of farmers' markets has doubled in the last decade, and more and more artisan food producers are starting businesses in B.C. all the time," McRae said. "With more than 200 commodities produced on land, and a further 100 from the sea, British Columbians have many locally grown options to consider for their meals, and changes in the availability of U.S. products may lead British Columbians to explore and enjoy more local foods."

Still, climbing food costs bring international issues directly to Canadian dinner tables, Murdock said.

"From a regional perspective, it raises awareness about food security and the implications of global-commodity markets and food prices, right here on the Island."

Thrifty Foods spokesman Ralf Mundel said the company is considering the implications for corn on two fronts: as a raw material in a range of products and as a key ingredient in locally produced baked goods.

He said the company has been told price increases are coming.

"However, as is typically the case, because we operate in an extremely competitive environment, the supply chain does try to absorb as much of the cost as possible. That being said, from a packaged-goods point of view, it's a wait-and-see."

Increases could show up sooner in baked goods, Mundel said. Otherwise, he said, the company is in a good position in terms of produce and other fresh foods because of its emphasis on buying from B.C.

"It really allows us to mitigate the effects of the U.S. situation," Mundel said.

Murdock said there are lessons to be learned from the effect that outside forces have on our food supply.

"We likely will never be able to avoid [price increases] completely, but one of the ways to get around the uncertainty in the food prices is to bolster local food production."

That has already been done to a certain extent, but what is happening in the United States "elevates the urgency," Murdock said.

Local government can take action, he said.

"One of the ways that I think we can do that is not just deny applications to move land out of the Agricultural Land Reserve or the Urban Containment Boundary, but also try to make it more profitable for people to stay in the farming industry.

"You do that by creating a marketplace, creating locations where farmers can sell their goods locally, giving an advantage to local producers when you do your purchasing," he said.

"Saanich is walking the talk with a local food-procurement policy that gives preference to local producers when we're buying food for our events or at rec centres."

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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