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Your groceries are getting more expensive: Dalhousie's Agri‑Food Analytics Lab tells us why

Posted by Erin Elaine Casey on December 4, 2019 in Research
(photo via Flickr under Creative Commons license)

We all need to eat.

It’s safe to say that few areas of academic research directly touch on Canadians’ lives quite like Canada’s Food Price Report. Food is one of the top three items in most household budgets, and rising grocery costs affect everyone.

“Canadians deserve to know more about price changes in the food they consume and how those changes will impact them,” says researcher Eamonn McGuinty with Dalhousie’s Agri-food Analytics Lab. “The report builds on the momentum started by some of the leading thinkers and researchers in the area of agriculture, food, health and nutrition.”

Download the report: EnglishFrench

Canada’s Food Price Report is prepared each year by a team of researchers from Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab and the University of Guelph. Now in its 10th year, the report has a track record of accurately forecasting food prices across the country. It also analyzes the complex environmental, biological, geopolitical and trade issues that influence those prices.

A 4% growth in food prices

But what does this actually mean for your grocery bill this year? The 2020 report forecasts two to four per cent growth in food prices, bringing the predicted annual cost of food for the average Canadian family to $12,667, an increase of $487 over 2019.

“This is a significant problem. Already one in eight Canadian households is food insecure and food affordability is a major issue for Canadians,” says Guelph Project Lead Simon Somogyi. “Wage growth is stagnant. Canadians aren’t making more money, so they’re taking money away from other parts of their budgets just to eat and that gets tougher and tougher. The ever-increasing use of food banks across the country shows us how many Canadians can’t afford to put food on their plates.”

“Food price inflation is desirable, but when rates increase quickly, families can be left behind,” adds Sylvain Charlebois, lead author and Dalhousie Project Lead, and scientific Director of Dal’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

“Vegetables are a perfect example. Canada’s new Food Guide encourages Canadians to eat more vegetables, but they’re getting more expensive. Increasing the amount of vegetables and fruits we produce domestically would be a great start in solving this problem.”

The report’s authors forecast that all food categories will go up in price in 2020, with meat in particular expected to go up by four to six per cent despite Canadians’ increasing interest in plant-based protein options. You’ll likely see other notable price increases in seafood, vegetables and restaurant meals, each of which are forecast to go up by two to four per cent; fruits are forecast to increase in price by up to three and a half per cent.

Food price increases in 2020 in British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and Prince Edward Island are expected to exceed the national average, while price increases in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are expected to be lower than the national average. The cost of food in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador is likely to align with the national average.

Forecasting food

Canada’s Food Price Report has a history of coming very close to being ‘on the money’ in terms of accurate forecasting. The 2019 forecast for annual food spending by the average Canadian family is on track to come within $23 of the actual cost. This accountability is a unique feature of Canada’s Food Price Report: each year includes a review of the previous year’s forecast.

“Few agencies will do that,” says Dr. Charlebois. “We were surprised by how accurate our 2019 forecast was, despite vegetable prices going up by 12 per cent rather than the predicted four to six per cent. Forecasting is not easy, and we have learned from our successes and failures over the last 10 years.”

But how does the research team actually know how much your grocery bill is going up this year? “The complexity of food pricing is a challenge, but the ability to deploy predictive analytics solutions and machine learning algorithms has never been better,” says McGuinty. “The number of open-source and subscription-based tools available is truly remarkable, but predicting macro-economic events, climate change impacts and consumer demand changes is still tough. Canada needs more distributed and democratized data sources related to agri-food and consumers. The Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie is working to fill that gap.”

There are opportunities to mitigate costs over the longer term in spite of the challenges facing Canada’s food price landscape. In addition to research and development related to growing more fruits and vegetables domestically, Canada can fill a leadership gap by developing alternatives to single-use plastic materials, legislating plastic use and implementing tax regimes that encourage producer responsibility.

Dr. Charlebois also predicts food waste will become a much larger issue — one we can all take more control of. “Families will need to reduce the amount of food waste they generate and learn how to repurpose food. We all need to do a better job of rescuing food from the compost bin.”  

McGuinty hopes this year’s report helps ordinary consumers understand a little more clearly why their grocery cart is getting more expensive to fill — and what they can do about it. “The food systems we have in Canada are complex and constantly changing. We hope this report drives the discussion towards cost-friendly and more accessible food across the country."

About the authors of Canada’s Food Price Report 2020

This year’s research team included Dalhousie University colleagues Vlado Keselj (Faculty of Computer Science), Janet Music (Agri-Food Analytics Lab), Andrea Giusto (Department of Economics), and Don Fiander (DalAnalytics). They were joined by Joon Son (IBM Canada), Hyejung (Cathy) Bae and Emon Majumder (Applied Research, Nova Scotia Community College), and Jay Harris (Schulich School of Business, York University). University of Guelph researchers included Erna Van Duren and Francis Tapon (Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics), Paul Uys (Ontario Agricultural College), Jess Haines (Family Relations and Applied Nutrition), and Graham Taylor and Alexander Moksyakov (School of Engineering).

For more information, please read the complete Canada’s Food Price Report 2020.