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Fork in the Road: Nothing half-baked about these challenges

Inflation. War. Climate. More: No one’s ever seen threats like these to our pantries and pocketbooks
If soaring food prices have you zinging through the grocery store with only a half-filled cart, you’re not the only one.

Hang on kids, and take a deep breath… 

Wall Street is tumbling like a house of cards. The S&P 500 is growling like an old bear, falling nine of the past 10 weeks while interest rates are climbing. And you can barely track inflation rates, they’re rising so quickly. 

Inflation has hit 40-year records in the U.K. and U.S., in the 8.6- to 9-per-cent range. Luckily, Canada has gotten off a little better, but still… according to CBC News, Canada’s latest annualized rate was 6.8 per cent, a 31-year high, with food prices up 9.7 per cent the past year in an interesting, uneven pattern: Pasta prices, for instance, are up nearly 20 per cent, and coffee nearly 14 per cent; and bread is up 12 per cent, while fresh veggie prices are “only” eight-per-cent higher so far this year.   

Labour shortages driven by the pandemic—yeppur, that’s still around and impacting all sorts of things, although sometimes you’d think people have just plumb forgotten about it—are still plaguing dozens of sectors from tourism to trucking, and driving up wages as people willing and able to work hop from one job to another. Higher wages mean ever-higher prices. And higher wages in some sectors mean others are woefully lacking people, including grocery stores, fast-food places and restaurants. 

And don’t forget the war in Ukraine raging on and on and on and on, although sometimes I worry that all those cookie drives and donations and feel-good empathy vibes have largely dissolved, drowning in the latest flood of cat videos. At least that’s the way it feels here on the lovely Wet Coast, seemingly far from it all. But don’t kid yourself. 

A recent UN report on the food crisis in Ukraine says that only a fifth of almost 1,300 large agribusinesses there that were surveyed mid-March had enough fuel to operate farm equipment needed to plant corn, barley and other crops this spring—something that’s already driven up food prices in countries worldwide. (See above.)

Never mind the banned cluster bombs and munitions and scorched earth strategies, evidence from the UN and other stalwart sources indicates that Russian troops have been looting hundreds of thousands of tons of Ukrainian grain, stealing farm equipment, and destroying grain storage facilities in order to compound destruction and suffering. 

Even worse on the moral and ethical scale, credible reports say that Russia is now trying to sell the stolen grain, especially to Africa, where tens of millions of people are on the brink of famine. In just one example, The New York Times reports that Chad, a landlocked nation of 17 million people, has declared a food emergency, with the UN warning that nearly a third of the country’s population will need humanitarian assistance this year.

On top of all that, picture farmers in the Ukraine cautiously, carefully checking their fields for unexploded bombs and missiles before they work, a hazard made even worse as fields of corn, grain or soy beans grow taller, obscuring the sightlines.

Don’t forget, too, that Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of fertilizer. Now with sanctions, the war itself, and other disruptions to the supply chain (see above, re: the pandemic), farmers around the world, including Canada, are contending with shortages and soaring prices for fertilizer compounded by tariffs imposed on Russian imports. All of this, of course, gets passed along to us, the mighty consumers of so many incredible edibles from grain, including meat, if you eat it—like grain-fed beef.  

On a brighter note, this could also prove to be something of a silver lining for Canadian fertilizer producers, like Nutrien Ltd., based in Saskatoon and one of the biggest such companies in the world. (Note to self: Buy some Nutrien shares.)

Then you’ve got to add in other factors, like the sky-rocketing prices at the gas pump, which circle back to those sanctions against Russia along with the retaliatory disruptions Russia itself is causing by pulling the plug on oil and gas lines to the European Union. These are also plaguing farmers, truckers of all our food supplies, and more, including fertilizer producers (yes, they use fossil fuels, too), just like they hit you and I. 

Don’t even get me started on the climate crisis and how all that’s implicated in our list of fully-baked challenges. I’ll never make my word count! Let’s just say that farmers all over—including here in B.C. where unusually cold, lousy, rainy weather has rendered fields a sodden mess and delayed crops by weeks—are contending with their own versions of climate turmoil, all of which incurs extra costs for food producers, which will ultimately be passed along to you and I.

See how the challenges are adding up for everyone from Pemberton to Pembina, Alta., to try and balance their budgets, pay their rent and keep food, good nourishing food, on the table? 

Some economists suggest that no one has seen economic conditions like we’re now facing since the end of the First World War. If it’s of any comfort, things could be worse—like inflation then was in the 20-per-cent range in the U.S. and 100 per cent in Germany!

But I say when you factor in the climate disaster, we’re looking at challenges none of us have ever seen. On that cheery note, let me add that in the next “Fork in the Road” I’ll give you some good ideas on how to save your hard-earned dollars and cope with all this turmoil. 

Until then, keep donating whatever you can to your favourite Ukrainian effort. They need it more than ever.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who just donated, again, to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress