By Andrew Hepburn - Saturday, December 22, 2012 - 0 Comments
This is part two of a series. In part one, Andrew Hepburn looked at whether rising demand from China and India can be blamed for food price hikes. In the next and last article, Hepburn will examine the role played by financial speculators, as well as U.S. subsidies for biofuel.
In our first post on the food crisis, we concluded China and India are not to blame for soaring food prices in recent years. But with those countries exonerated, just what is responsible for costlier groceries?
One straightforward hypothesis is that high prices are simply the result of very low food inventories. As stocks of crops and other agricultural commodities decline, prices tend to rise. And when stocks get critically low, the cost of food can rise sky-high. This is especially true of staples like grains for which, at least in the short term, consumption demand tends to be very unresponsive to price (i.e. even runaway prices will not reduce demand significantly because grains are such a necessity).
Agricultural markets focus intently on the level of stocks for things like wheat and corn, because such data provides a sense of how much of a buffer exists against supply shortfalls or sharp increases in demand. In particular, the key figure market participants watch is something called the stocks-to-use ratio, the level of stocks relative to demand. A high ratio means inventories are plentiful and prices likely low, and vice versa.
By Andrew Hepburn - Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
This is part one of a series. Next up: Andrew Hepburn will look at whether low inventories and supply shocks are responsible for food price spikes. In the next and last article, Hepburn will examine the role played by financial speculators, as well U.S. subsidies for biofuel.
As Maclean’s noted yesterday, a report by the University of Guelph suggests that food prices in Canada could rise by 3.5 per cent in 2013. That might not be a shocking increase, but it’s still a significant one and it is a timely reminder of how expensive food has become in recent years.
As the following chart from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) demonstrates, since 2004 food prices have levitated:
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 1:21 PM - 0 Comments
Sarah Schmidt reviews the last few years of rejection at the Health department.
Aglukkaq’s office confirmed this week that the recommendations have been rejected … Aglukkaq prematurely disbanded her much-touted expert panel on sodium in December 2010 … Aglukkaq immediately shot down the idea and defended the way companies label their food products … After sitting on the report for over a year, Aglukkaq finally announced she was rejecting the advice … Five years after unveiling a proposal to end consumer confusion over “whole wheat” claims on bread products, Health Canada confirmed earlier this year it has no plans to change the food-labelling rule.
By Julia Belluz - Thursday, April 19, 2012 at 12:30 PM - 0 Comments
“New research coming out of some of America’s most respected institutions is starting to find that sugar … is a toxin and could be a driving force behind some of this country’s leading killers, including heart disease.”—Dr. Sanjay Gupta, 60 Minutes
Exactly a year has passed since the New York Times published the now infamous article “Is Sugar Toxic?” and the debates about the evils of the sweet stuff show no sign of slowing to a molasses crawl. In fact, it seems, sugar has run ahead of other evil foods to become the number one edible enemy.
By Colby Cosh - Monday, November 14, 2011 at 10:00 AM - 25 Comments
The suit argues the agriculture minister doesn’t have the authority to shut it down
“Pierre Trudeau said there was no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” recalls Henry Vos, a grain farmer from Fairview, Alta. “So I ask, should the government be in the grain fields and the grain bins of the nation?” The private sex lives of Canadians and cultivating wheat might make for an unlikely comparison, but Vos, a former director of the Canadian Wheat Board, believes the board should start preparing to lose its grip on the export trade in Prairie wheat and barley. In late October, he quit the board in protest.
Vos is angry over a last-ditch attempt by the board to maintain its monopoly by taking the radical legal step of suing Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. The suit, announced Oct. 26, would thwart Bill C-18, the Harper government’s legislation to end the “single desk” monopoly. (C-18 is at the committee stage in the House of Commons.) But critics say the CWB is fighting an uphill battle against constitutional principles.
As a minority government, the Conservatives were blocked by the courts when they tried to change the wheat board’s mandate by order-in-council and without a parliamentary vote. Now the Conservatives have a majority and can presumably make whatever direct changes they want to the Canadian Wheat Board Act. But the board says, “Not so fast.” Section 47.1 of the act, added by the Liberals in 1998, says that the agriculture minister cannot alter single-desk arrangements without first consulting the board and holding a vote of grain producers.
By Kate Fillion - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 9:40 AM - 240 Comments
Dr. William Davis on why it is so addictive, and how shunning it will make you skinny
William Davis, a preventive cardiologist who practises in Milwaukee, Wis., argues in his new book Wheat Belly that wheat is bad for your health—so bad that it should carry a surgeon general’s warning.
Q: You say the crux of the problem with wheat is that the stuff we eat today has been genetically altered. How is it different than the wheat our grandparents ate?
A: First of all, it looks different. If you held up a conventional wheat plant from 50 years ago against a modern, high-yield dwarf wheat plant, you would see that today’s plant is about 2½ feet shorter. It’s stockier, so it can support a much heavier seedbed, and it grows much faster. The great irony here is that the term “genetic modification” refers to the actual insertion or deletion of a gene, and that’s not what’s happened with wheat. Instead, the plant has been hybridized and crossbred to make it resistant to drought and fungi, and to vastly increase yield per acre. Agricultural geneticists have shown that wheat proteins undergo structural change with hybridization, and that the hybrid contains proteins that are found in neither parent plant. Now, it shouldn’t be the case that every single new agricultural hybrid has to be checked and tested, that would be absurd. But we’ve created thousands of what I call Frankengrains over the past 50 years, using pretty extreme techniques, and their safety for human consumption has never been tested or even questioned.
By Jacob Richler - Monday, August 29, 2011 at 11:05 AM - 2 Comments
Having a bag of culinary history was great, but what would it taste like as bread?
Some weeks back, a friend of mine returned from a lamb-eating expedition to Charlevoix, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, with the thoughtful and intriguing gift of a bag of flour from an old Quebec mill. A very old Quebec mill called Laterrière at Les Éboulements, which was built around 1790 and functions today precisely as it did then, via the combined forces of water power, grindstones, and a miller named Tremblay (Jean-Guy, the current meunier, is a descendant of the original owner, Jean-François).
What’s more, the flour in the bag is made exclusively from wheat grown on those same nearby fields that were once part of the seigneury that the mill was built to service.
Pretty nifty, it seemed to me. A nice one-kilo bag of culinary history to keep on my desk. But what I really wanted to know was what it tasted like, as bread.
By Colby Cosh - Monday, June 6, 2011 at 9:50 AM - 29 Comments
Australia abolished theirs. Are we next?
In 2008, the Australian Wheat Board, still staggering from a scandal over kickbacks to Saddam Hussein, was stripped of its powers as the sole lawful bulk exporter of that country’s wheat. This left Canada as the lone developed nation with a legally protected “single desk” export buyer-seller—the Canadian Wheat Board. With a minority government in Ottawa, the board’s grip on Prairie wheat was unshakeable. But now Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have a majority, with the corresponding freedom to rewrite statutes. And they intend to take Canadian wheat growers down the same path as Australia.
The AWB’s monopoly was killed off with the support of the two biggest political parties in Australia’s proportional, bargaining-driven legislative system. The board—with the monopoly still intact—was taken private in 1999. But when the Iraq controversy exploded in 2005, the AWB was banned from dealing to a major customer as criminal and administrative inquiries ground on. Poor financial results turned ugly, and the crisis demonstrated that while a single desk may give growers leverage, it also crowds all the proverbial eggs into one basket.
That is precisely the source of contention in Canada, where board reform has been urged for decades by an enterprising minority of growers eager for marketing choice. Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz wants to introduce legislation to eliminate the CWB monopoly this autumn and hopes to have a free-trade regime in place by August 2012. He faces tricky choices about how much vestigial regulation to impose on the Canadian wheat market (which exports 16 to 20 million tonnes in a typical year) and the transport system it depends on. He will also have to look at other functions of the wheat board, such as research, standardization and forecasting, and decide whether to leave them with the CWB, parcel them out to independent agencies, or let the market sort them out. The Australian Agriculture Department now funds these peripheral mandates by taxing wheat exports at 23 Canadian cents a tonne.
By Erica Alini - Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 10:26 AM - 0 Comments
A quarter of Canada’s wheat exports go into noodle production
The race is on to create noodle-perfect wheat. The University of Manitoba, for example, plans to use ultrasound technology to study the texture of doughs used in noodle-making, and single out the best wheat for the job. If successful, says Martin Scanlon, a professor in the department of food science, it could help bring to the market new varieties of highly competitive Canadian wheat-for-noodles in as little as five years. Tellingly, the federal government’s Canadian Grain Commission has a research program devoted to developing wheats that fit the “colour, appearance, and cooked texture” of noodles.
The heightened interest reflects a broad trend in global trade. Canada’s wheat exports have been shifting east, with Asian markets now absorbing about half of our wheat exports, a quarter of which go into noodle production. Last year, Canada sold almost $1.5-billion worth of wheat to Asia, which was three times its exports to European Union countries. “The traditional view of Canada as the breadbasket of the world is not entirely correct anymore,” says Scanlon. And while much of our Asian wheat exports currently turns up in Japanese noodle bowls, trade flows to the region are likely to grow thanks to the increasingly deep pockets of Chinese consumers, says Graham Worden, senior manager of technical services at the Winnipeg-based Canadian Wheat Board. China has traditionally pursued a policy of self-sufficiency on wheat, but the local crop tends to be cheap and rather low quality, says Worden. The hope is that the Chinese will develop a large appetite for high-end noodles, only made possible, say experts, with top-quality wheat.