Customers turn to cheaper grocery options

Source: Globe and Mail, April 20, 2011

Consumers are finding ways to keep their grocery bills in check as food costs climb, trading down and changing how they feed their families.

This shift is showing signs of altering the competitive landscape for Canadian supermarkets.

Grocers have started to pass on to shoppers price hikes from suppliers whose own costs are surging. But they’re finding they can’t raise prices too much because consumers simply stop buying higher-priced goods and switch to cheaper alternatives. At the same time, discounter Wal-Mart Canada Corp. is pressuring its competitors with expanded food offerings, meaning their rivals must in turn bolster their own discount operations and promotions.

Statistics Canada reported earlier this week that food prices, measured by the consumer price index, are on the rise, but that inflation is only starting to help grocers, and only in limited ways.

Typically, a little inflation is a grocer's friend, since stores can pass on higher prices without much consumer resistance. But the rapid expansion of discount stores is moderating that. Supermarkets no longer have the luxury of just jacking up prices when their own costs rise, because discounters have trained consumers to hunt for deals. The retailers are racing to focus more on their own discount arms, straining their margins and forcing them to find savings elsewhere.



Le prix de l'essence siphonne les portefeuilles

Source: La Presse, 12 avril 2011

(Toronto) La hausse de plus de 30 % du prix de l'essence depuis le début de 2011 représente une facture annuelle supplémentaire de 950 $ par ménage. «Cela équivaut à une augmentation de 7 % de l'impôt sur le revenu du Canadien moyen», estime Benjamin Tal, économiste à la CIBC.

La difficulté avec l'essence, c'est que sa demande est inélastique. La flambée des prix de l'été 2008 n'a pas réduit sa consommation. Entre juillet 2007 et juillet 2008, le prix du litre à la pompe est passé de 1,00 $ à 1,40 $. Pourtant, rappelle-t-il, la consommation canadienne n'a pas bronché : 3,5 milliards de litres par mois.

L'argent versé en plus aux stations-service ou au livreur de mazout de chauffage est puisé ailleurs dans le budget familial. Cela s'avère un exercice pénible pour les ménages près ou en deçà du revenu disponible médian canadien.

Pour les uns, ce sera le report d'achat d'un électroménager ou d'un appareil électronique, mais, pour la plupart, ce sera l'augmentation du temps de lecture des circulaires. La chasse aux aubaines dans les supermarchés aura pour effet de réduire les marges des marchands et de vider les restaurants, surtout ceux qui ciblent la famille ou les budgets moyens.



For the first time, food becomes a political priority

Source: Globe & Mail, April 11, 2011

For the first time in Canadian electoral history, the edible is political.

Each of the country’s federal parties have included strategies in their electoral platforms that, to varying degrees, highlight food as a distinct priority separate from agriculture.

The Conservative policy, announced Sunday, most closely resembles a traditional agriculture policy, with its focus on efforts to sustain the family farm and boost exports, while the Liberals and New Democrats aim to foster unprecedented co-operation between government departments dealing with the production, distribution, sale and consumption of food.

Building on a growing middle-class awareness of the pressures on the global food system, all parties acknowledge the need for some sort of long-term national strategy. What separates them are their degrees of willingness to expand their focus beyond the farm.

The fact that food is mentioned across all five electoral platforms is being hailed as a victory for the global food movement, which has already nudged a handful of European nations to implement long-term policies.


Weekend forum encourages people to buy local food

Source: Times & Transcript, April 11, 2011

The need for more people to buy locally and the growth of organic farming were among the major issues discussed yesterday at a Local Food Forum.

Sponsored by Post Carbon Moncton, it took place at the Delta Beauséjour Hotel.

Andrew Spring of Moncton, executive director for the Fundy Biosphere and emcee for the forum, said there are a lot of issues preventing area residents from getting food produced in the area.

For one thing, a lot of local food is exported to Europe and Japan, said Spring. It is the small New Brunswick farmer, the one who cannot afford to do this, that concerns him, he said.

"These farmers work 16-hour days and do not have the time to go out and meet people and promote their products."

Right now, Spring said gas prices are "going through the roof" and this will further hike the cost of food items from outside the area. The extra cost of transporting them here will go on the price you pay at the supermarket, he said.

So, buying locally makes sense strictly from an economic point of view, he said.



Rush to Use Crops as Fuel Raises Food Prices and Hunger Fears

Source: NY Times, April 7, 2011

The starchy cassava root has long been an important ingredient in everything from tapioca pudding and ice cream to paper and animal feed.

But last year, 98 percent of cassava chips exported from Thailand, the world’s largest cassava exporter, went to just one place and almost all for one purpose: to China to make biofuel. Driven by new demand, Thai exports of cassava chips have increased nearly fourfold since 2008, and the price of cassava has roughly doubled.

Each year, an ever larger portion of the world’s crops — cassava and corn, sugar and palm oil — is being diverted for biofuels as developed countries pass laws mandating greater use of nonfossil fuels and as emerging powerhouses like China seek new sources of energy to keep their cars and industries running. Cassava is a relatively new entrant in the biofuel stream.

But with food prices rising sharply in recent months, many experts are calling on countries to scale back their headlong rush into green fuel development, arguing that the combination of ambitious biofuel targets and mediocre harvests of some crucial crops is contributing to high prices, hunger and political instability.



Only recessions can deliver Obama's energy targets

By Jeff Rubin
Published in Globe & Mail, April 6, 2011

Like many in the White House before him, President Barack Obama charted out a plan last week to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. And like his predecessors, his road map to cut U.S. oil imports by one-third over the next decade comes against the backdrop of sharply rising oil prices and supply disruptions from an increasingly volatile Middle East.

Unfortunately, we have heard this song many times before. In 1973, President Richard Nixon unveiled “Project Independence” in response to the OPEC oil embargo that was triggered by the Arab–Israeli war. President Jimmy Carter called the need to lessen U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil the moral equivalent of war in response to the supply disruptions that followed the Iranian Revolution. President George Bush Jr. referred to America’s dependence on foreign oil as nothing short of an addiction.

Over the past four decades U.S. presidents have waxed and waned eloquently about the need to reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil. Yet the U.S. economy still relies on imports for more than 50% of the 19 million barrels of oil burned every day. As a result, the U.S. remains as vulnerable to soaring oil prices as it was during the OPEC shocks in the 1970s.

In many ways, Obama’s plan is reminiscent of his predecessors by supporting more government subsidies for energy alternatives such as nuclear and bio fuels. Higher fuel efficiency standards will be mandated for cars and trucks. And, of course, there will be increased reliance on offshore drilling for deep water oil and on hydraulic fracturing in pursuit of America’s new wonder fuel: shale gas.

Unfortunately, these initiatives have in one way or another been tried before by previous administrations. And many look less credible than they have in the past.

As the Fukushima nuclear disaster threatens Japan with a Chernobyl-like legacy,

President Obama is unlikely to find much support for more nuclear power in a country that already has more nuclear plants (and more radioactive spent fuel lying around) than any other in the world.

And so far the diversion of food production to energy generation, like the 12 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol that America pumps out every year, has had a far greater impact on raising food and fertilizer prices than on lowering energy prices.

While greater fuel efficiency is a laudable goal, past improvements in fuel efficiency have only encouraged Americans to drive more each year,- about 30% more than at the time of the OPEC oil shocks. And they haven’t been filling up their tanks with shale gas either, which has only a quarter of the energy density of either gasoline or diesel.

So far, recessions have been the only sure fire way America has cut back on its fuel consumption and the need for oil imports. But, of course, that is not an option any U.S. president can pursue.


Energy-saving incentives improved

Source: Times & Transcript, April 5, 2011

Home and apartment owners can now receive even more help on the road to making buildings more energy efficient.

Efficiency NB has revised its residential energy efficiency programs, setting higher energy-saving targets and increasing incentives for those willing to invest in their home or apartment complex.

"We feel very strongly that this is going to assist New Brunswick homeowners and property owners to secure even deeper energy savings through the work that they do through our programs," says Elizabeth Weir, president and chief executive officer with Efficiency NB.

The more energy-saving potential that upgrades to a home or apartment complex offer, the higher the incentives its owner can receive.

Those willing to make some of the biggest investments can receive up to an additional 20 per cent in funding when upgrading three of four major areas, including central heating, attic insulation, basement insulation and wall insulation.

Efficiency NB says owners who carry out comprehensive whole home upgrades can realize up to a 50 per cent reduction in energy use and may be eligible for the maximum incentive of $6,000, up from $2,000. Homeowners who carry out whole home upgrades and actually achieve a net zero energy rating may be eligible for an additional $4,000 in incentives.

A net zero home or building is connected to the electric power grid but combines a "super energy-efficient building with renewable energy systems that produce most, or all of its energy needs on an annual basis," a press release for the program reads.



What Japan's disaster tells us about peak oil

Source: The Guardian, april 4, 2011

For large parts of eastern Japan that were not directly hit by the tsunami on 11 March 2011, including the nation's capital, the current state of affairs feels very much like a dry-run for peak oil. This is not to belittle the tragic loss of life and the dire situation facing many survivors left without homes and livelihoods. Rather, the aim here is to reflect upon the post-disaster events and compare them with those normally associated with the worst-case scenarios for peak oil.

The earthquake and tsunami affected six of the 28 oil refineries in Japan and immediately petrol rationing was introduced with a maximum of 20 litres per car (in some instances as low as 5 litres). On 14 March, the government allowed the oil industry to release 3 days' worth of oil from stockpiles and on 22 March an additional 22 days' worth of oil was released.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which serves a population of 44.5 million, lost one quarter of its supply capacity as a result of the quake, through the closedown of its two Fukushima nuclear power plants (Dai-ichi and Dai-ni), as well as eight fossil fuel based thermal power stations. Subsequently, from 14 March 2011 onwards, TEPCO was forced to implement a series of scheduled outages across the Kanto region (the prefectures of Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Kanagawa).

While the thermal power stations may restart operations soon, the overall shortfall will become even more difficult to manage over the summer period when air conditioning is utilized. The reality is that these power cuts could continue for years, especially since the one of the two Fukushima nuclear plants has effectively become a pile of radioactive scrap.


Rising food costs strain families

Source: Times & Transcript, April 4, 2011

Food is no longer limited in our conversations to simply, "What's for dinner?"

Across the region, the country and indeed the world, people are talking more about food - directly and indirectly. We hear about rising food costs, concerns about food security and the need to buy local and support your local farmer. There are now discussions about potentially using some of New Brunswick's agricultural land for biofuel production as governments look to wean us of our dependency on crude oil.

Meanwhile, particularly in this province, we're told that we are overweight or obese and need to eat more healthful food. But quick, cheap meals often take precedence in a world where we can't put our smart phones down long enough to turn the oven on or we simply can't afford to choose healthful food.

The idea of taxing less nutritious food to push people into choosing more healthful options has also been floated, but that idea is criticized because it might only do more damage to those who already struggle to pay the grocery bill.

Clare Archibald, executive director of Moncton Headstart, says the non-profit organization had to make a change recently to its food-purchasing program in light of rising food costs.