As a university student, I’m familiar with the trials and tribulations of grocery shopping on a budget. Produce is neither cheap nor fresh, and basic necessities seem excessively expensive. I dread the weekly trip to the grocery store, knowing I’ll be leaving with a cart full of food and a drained bank account.
It’s not just the price of food that’s been increasing as of late — several types of products, from clothing to electronic devices, are facing a gradual rise in cost. However, according to the United Nations, changes in the economic state of the food industry are likely to have more pertinent effects worldwide.
The climate crisis, agriculture, and the economy
According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius will effectively make eight per cent of farmland worldwide unusable for agricultural purposes. For each degree Celsius that the temperature warms, crop production declines by five to 15 per cent. As the trajectory of global average temperature — which placed 2022 as the sixth warmest year on record — demonstrates, these declines in land availability and productivity are seemingly inevitable.
Rising temperatures go hand in hand with rising prices. Not only do these increases in global temperature affect food security, but this insecurity also contributes to an increase in cost. In 2022, the United Nations reported that, globally, the price of food was 23 per cent higher than the previous year.
Current events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have been cited as reasons for this increase, and there’s no doubt that the subsequent impacts on supply chains have contributed to the abnormally high cost of food. However, the climate crisis continues to dominate the narrative, and its continual impact on the economy and agriculture industry has devastating implications for food prices.
Effects of the climate crisis on agriculture
Higher temperatures and altered weather patterns have shifted growing seasons, thus making it harder for farmers to predict when these growing seasons will occur. The intensification of extreme weather events is also a major reason for concern, creating problems for production and threatening the health of existing crops and farmland.
Widespread water stress and water shortage complicate irrigation, especially in arid regions that happen to be the centres of agricultural production. Perpetual drought in California has already proven to be problematic, especially since the region is the world’s fifth largest supplier of food and cotton; as water becomes more scarce, nations worldwide will feel the effects in the form of product availability and extreme prices for currently accessible products.
However, it’s not only fruit and vegetable yields that are suffering at the hands of the climate crisis — grains and meat are experiencing a similar fate.
Many of the world’s nations depend on grains as a staple food source. In fact, the three crops that make up almost half of the global food supply are rice, wheat, and maize. Due to the impacts of global warming and extreme weather, however, supplies of these staple grains have been decimated worldwide — leading to some of the most expensive prices ever recorded, an issue which subsequently compromises the ability of certain populations to sustain themselves.
Meat is a complex challenge, partly due to the impact of factory farms on the environment. Livestock is a major contributor to emissions that drive global warming, and the conversion of land to provide feed for these animals decreases the amount of arable land. Combined with unpredictable weather and the spread of disease driven by temperature rise, the price of meat is predicted to further increase.
The effects of rising meat costs are apparent in our own backyard. In January, a viral tweet sent waves of confusion throughout Canada — a photo of chicken breast priced at $27 per kilogram caused many to question the rationale and legality of the extreme price. The picture was taken at a Toronto Loblaws, and while the company issued a statement explaining that the chicken came from a premium poultry line, this didn’t prevent people from criticizing the company for the absurd pricing decision. Given this situation, it’s apparent that food prices are already becoming more extreme than normal.
What does this mean for Canada?
As the climate crisis continues to wreak havoc on global agriculture, the effects will be noticeable across Canada.
The agriculture sector is a major industry — it employed 2.1 million people and contributed 6.8 per cent to Canadian gross domestic product in 2021. Farms occupy 6.3 per cent of Canada’s land area, and the exportation of food and crops to other countries helps support the economy.
According to Statistics Canada, since last August, the rate of food price inflation has been over 10 per cent. For the average Canadian, this means a likely increase in the monthly grocery bill or a potential shortage of imported produce such as bananas. For low-income Canadians, this means a choice between feeding the family or paying for other expenses. Food is a basic necessity, but as prices increase, some find themselves struggling to meet this need.
A future of food insecurity
The climate crisis is no longer just an environmental, health, and social justice problem. Now, it’s an economic issue that poses significant threats to food.
Worldwide, this means an increase in malnutrition, food insecurity, and the potential for conflicts over food availability. The agriculture industry soon won’t be able to meet the demands of an ever-increasing world population, creating a vicious cycle of insecurity and price surges.
I’ve seen the impacts firsthand. The current costs of dairy products are ridiculous and the price of meat is impossible to justify. If these increases continue, eating meat or dairy-free diets won’t be a choice — it will become a necessity.
We can’t solve the food crisis without first addressing the climate crisis. The two are innately intertwined and, until there is a meaningful collective effort to rectify the root causes of the climate crisis or adapt our agricultural practices, there is little hope to slow the rising cost of food and insecurity that will come to dominate our future.
Chloe MacVicar is a third-year student at University College, studying environmental studies, political science, and writing and rhetoric. She is a climate columnist for The Varsity’s comment section.