Food Prices: Why Consumers Should Care About Accessible Rural Energy



Owen RobertsConsumers want food that’s as cheap as possible. True, they want safe food, too, and all those other features such as wholesome, nutritious and environmentally sound food.

But mainly, they want food cheap. The huge increase in grocery items at big box stores and discount outlets bears that out.

Exceptions exist, particularly with the growing number of people who say they support local food and local farmers, those who believe it’s worth a few extra bucks to know where their food comes from and enjoy a vibrant local rural economy.

Think about how much time you spend figuring out how to produce food as economically as possible, so you can make a living in this predominantly cheap-food society.

Among the most expensive costs in farming is energy.

That’s one reason why the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has made greater access to natural gas in rural areas one of its top political priorities for 2014.

The federation says at half the cost of electricity and one-third the cost of propane, natural gas would save rural Ontario farms, families and businesses more than $800 million per year in energy costs.

Would cheaper energy help hold food costs down? It’s certainly possible. Wherever you can save money without creating a negative ripple effect, consumers ultimately benefit.

Water is another issue. For its part, the other main general farm organization in the province, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, says water management is its top priority for 2014.

In part, the reason is the environment. “Better management will help farmers take on the environmental challenges related to water where agriculture can play a role in being part of the solution,” says the federation.

But it also notes better water management aids the bottom line.

“Farmers can manage their productivity through (water) irrigation, drainage and storage,” it says.

Do consumers care whether rural Ontario gets more natural gas, or if farmers use irrigation, drainage and storage more efficiently?

I doubt it. And that lack of interest in rural affairs underlines why the farm community must be relentless in promoting a greater understanding among urban Canada of its most important needs.

Final word goes to Farm Credit Canada, the country’s largest agricultural lender. It says two of the biggest developments likely to have an impact on agriculture this year are the tentative agreement between the European Union and Canada on the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, and the elusive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“Between those two agreements, every sector of Canadian agriculture will have opportunities, and face some challenges,” says the corporation’s chief economist J.P. Gervais. “We need to start preparing to manage our business in a new environment.”

Again, does the average consumer trying to figure out whether to buy organic apples or conventionally grown apples understand the implications for farmers of this new environment? Do consumers know governments and many parts of the food industry herald exports – not local food — as the key to a prosperous agricultural economy, a fact which is driving the dogged pursuit and implementation of these agreements?

The brave new world may not be friendly to all segments of Canadian agriculture. There cannot be enough conversations with consumers to make 2014 a positive year for Canadian farmers.

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