Numbers games 

More food facts for your 'computational analysis'

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - by the numbers The areas treated with herbicides and insecticides was under-reported
  • by the numbers The areas treated with herbicides and insecticides was under-reported

Never mind quantitative easing. In our info-saturated, statistics-driven world, we also worship at the feet of quantitative data, quantitative analysis and quantitative research —research done to explain phenomena that depends on statistics, math and computational techniques.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, it's a numbers game. And that applies to our food world, too.

Sure, we expect to find good, solid, quantitative data lurking behind things like our latest health and nutritional studies, ingredient analyses or status of farmland and its productivity. But numbers also call to us big time in daily living, from the calories we count to the recipe books we collect: The 250 Best Brownies, Bars and Squares; 750 Best Appetizers; 100 Best Quick Gluten-Free Recipes; 150 Best Desserts in a Jar all project the siren call of numbers, order, reliability and ease along with the ensuing hierarchy of good, better, best-ness we humans can't resist.

So here in my latest offering of food numbers you can trust now and at your next dinner party when you're stuck for conversation starters along with the appies, are things you can rely on for your "computational techniques," too.

By the way, if you're doing them on a computer, which you likely are, here's a scary but not surprising fact from The Washington Post: Young and unemployed men who don't have college degrees have replaced 75 per cent of the time they used to spend working with time on the computer, mostly playing video games. Go figure what that's going to mean over time...

For one, we already know they aren't exactly turning to farming.

• Number of farms in Canada in 2011, time of the last official agriculture census, versus 1991, the one prior to that: 205,730 versus 280,043.

• Percentage drop in the number of farm operators during that 20-year period: 24.8.

• Average age of farm operators in 2011 versus 1991: 54.0 years versus 47.5 years.

• Percentage increase in size of farms in Canada in 2011 over 1991: 30.

• Percentage increase in sales of supermarkets and grocery retails stores in Canada in 2015 over the previous year (this doesn't include convenience store sales): 1.4.

• Percentage increase in Canadian food manufacturer sales: 2.9.

• Percentage increase in food, beverage and tobacco imports versus exports in 2015 over the previous year: 13.0 versus 15.0.

• Percentage increase of Canadian exports of fertilizer, pesticides and other chemical products in 2015: 10.

• Dollar value of sales by Canada's agricultural supplies industry in 2015: 25.6 billion.

• Rank of increase in wholesale food, beverage and tobacco sales in B.C. in 2015 compared to increases in other wholesale sales overall: 1st.

• Percentage increase in Canada's Industrial Product Price Index for meat, fish, and dairy products in 2015: 5.1.

• Percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index for food in 2015, on an annual average basis: 3.7.

• Percentage decrease in the cost of food in Canada from July to August 2016: 0.6.

• Unemployment rate in Canada and in B.C., respectively, as of August 2016: 7.0 and 5.5 per cent.

• Value, in thousands of dollars, of aquaculture sales and services in B.C. in 2014: 415,770.

• In 2010: 531,739.

• Value, in thousands of dollars, of aquaculture salaries and wages in B.C. in 2014: 61,795.

• In 2010: 60,010.

• Number of hectares of farmland in Canada with commercial fertilizer applied in 2006: 331,440.

• Percentage decrease in areas of Canadian farmland with commercial fertilizer applied, 1996 versus 2006: 8.3.

• Number of hectares of farmland in Canada with herbicides applied in 2006: 153,900.*

• Insecticides applied: 29,922.*

• Fungicides applied: 25,014.*

* These last three facts come with a footnoted caveat by Stats Canada, which shows how important accurate census data are, and how challenging and complex it can be to gather those data and ensure their accuracy. In short, how tricky numbers games can be.

Here's the note in its entirety, to stir up some empathy next time you encounter a census taker: "Since 1996, the area of land that was treated with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides was under-reported. Some respondents reported chemical expenses but not any corresponding areas to which these chemicals were applied. Telephone follow up with a sample of these respondents confirmed that some respondents had mistakenly reported for the current year instead of the previous year as requested and, when they completed their questionnaires for 1996 to 2006, the chemicals purchased had not yet been applied."

And finally, in case you missed it last week, the numbers that triggered this chapter on food numbers in the first place:

• Number of consecutive years Whistler has been ranked No. 1 by SKI Magazine: 3

Sources: The Washington Post; Tourism Whistler; Statistics Canada.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who appreciates the science behind the numbers.


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