Who is to blame for the soaring price of cauliflower?

OTTAWA -- "Cauliflower should not be a luxury item." -- NDP press release, Jan. 22, 2016.

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Along with many other fruits and vegetables, cauliflower had become "inexplicably expensive" amid reports that shoppers were paying as much as $8 a head, the New Democrats said in their release last week.

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It cited a Statistics Canada report that inflation was at its highest level in over a year, with the cost of fresh produce increasing by 13.3 per cent in December compared with the previous year.

"The upcoming budget will be an opportunity for the Liberals to take concrete action to reduce inequality," NDP finance critic Guy Caron was quoted as saying. "It's completely unacceptable that families can no longer afford fresh vegetables."

How accurate were the New Democrat MP's claims?

Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of "no baloney" to "full of baloney" (complete methodology below).

This one earns a rating of "some baloney" -- the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.

Here's why:

THE FACTS

Over 850,000 Canadians visit a food bank each month, so many are indeed struggling to put basic, nutritious food on the table.

The price of cauliflower did jump to eye-popping highs in December, but merchants blamed the rapidly sinking dollar -- which made imports more expensive -- and a drought in California.

Those factors -- especially the dollar -- also contributed to a substantial overall rise in the cost of fruit and veggies last year. However, projections for 2016 by the Food Institute at the University of Guelph suggest the increases will be more modest -- between two and four per cent for vegetables and 2.5 to 4.5 per cent for fruit and nuts.

In addition, the new Liberal government has promised a national policy on food "that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country."

Caron acknowledged in an interview that the cost of fruit and vegetables was beyond "control of the government." But he said the Liberals must be part of the solution by helping lower-income people afford food basics through tax cuts, and by working towards "food security" by encouraging more locally grown produce.

"I think the first step is actually to acknowledge there's a problem," he said.

THE EXPERTS

Kevin Grier, an agriculture and food market analyst in Guelph, Ont., said he believes the exchange rate is key to fruit and vegetable costs. "It really is not any more complicated than that."

The low Canadian dollar is overpowering other factors such as global commodity prices and competition at the retail level, he added.

"When people talk about the government doing something -- like what?" he said. "We have in Canada probably the most efficient food system in the world. It's affordable by any global standards."

Even if Canadians had the technical capacity to grow more produce year-round, that would not necessarily translate into more affordable prices, he added.

"Why in the world would (a Canadian grower) sell for any less than the product coming in could go for?" Grier asked. "It just doesn't make any sense."

Consumers now expect to walk into a grocery store any time of year and find the fruit and vegetables they want, said Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.

But climate and currency fluctuations can play havoc with those expectations. "Sometimes there just isn't a product available, and that's where you see significant price changes."

Lemaire stressed there is always an affordable alternative product, though he admits it may be something shoppers shy away from because it is unfamiliar or they don't know how to cook it.

Canadians will always rely on a "global food model," he argued, but, at the same time, he advocates more access to locally grown produce, fostered through new technology and innovation.

Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, said a long-term perspective is key in a country with aging farmers and no real plan to encourage local food production.

"We need more diversity in our farming system. And we need to be able to satisfy that appetite for local food," she said.

"There's four million Canadians living in food insecurity. In a land as abundant and as rich as Canada in resources, that's an unbelievable figure. And food banks are not the answer to solving that problem."

Ensuring more of the food we eat is grown closer to home would make Canada less vulnerable to the currency fluctuations that suddenly drive up the cost of imports, she said.

Bronson said she hopes the coming Liberal food policy will help spur the next generation of Canadian farmers and foster the sort of small-scale, organic production many want.

"That doesn't buy you a cauliflower at $1.99 in a quick fix," she allows.

THE VERDICT

Caron and the NDP make valid points about the rising cost of fruit and vegetables, the ability of lower-income Canadians to pay for them, and Canada's vulnerability to sudden spikes in the price of certain imported vegetables.

But holding up cauliflower as a poster vegetable for the phenomenon was somewhat misleading, given the temporary influence of the dollar and climate. In addition, there is no guarantee that, even if cauliflower were grown in winterized warehouses in downtown Montreal, the price would have been more reasonable for Canadian shoppers.

For these reasons, the party's claim contains "some baloney."

METHODOLOGY

The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:

No baloney -- the statement is completely accurate

A little baloney -- the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required

Some baloney -- the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing

A lot of baloney -- the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth

Full of baloney -- the statement is completely inaccurate



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