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Short-sighted plastics ban would cause food shortages, increased prices: OPINION

Banning the produce industry from using plastic materials at this time would create catastrophic financial and health consequences for Canadians
Ron Lemaire, CPMA; Dave Puglia, Western Growers
Ron Lemaire, CPMA and Dave Puglia, Western Growers

Canadian consumers are already besieged by high food prices. Now the government is pushing to implement a plastics ban without considering the consequences, including increased prices and reduced access to affordable, healthy food.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is advocating for a near-elimination approach for plastic packaging that would require 75% of all produce sold in grocery stores to be sold in bulk or in non-plastic packaging by 2026; this number will increase to 95% by 2028. Fresh fruits and vegetables represent only 2.9% of all plastic packaging in Canada, yet the near-total elimination of these essential packaging tools could cause dramatic food security and food affordability issues for Canadians. 

While the industry, consumers, and government recognize that we all need to reduce plastic waste—the challenge is in the practical delivery. Banning the produce industry from using plastic materials at this time would create catastrophic financial and health consequences for Canadians. 

Canadians benefit from a year-round supply of fresh fruit and vegetables despite a short domestic growing season. Imports represent the vast majority of produce sold to meet Canadian consumer demand and the majority of the products come from the United States. Western Growers’ farmers provide two-thirds of the American fruits and vegetables available year-round to Canadians, and they know first-hand how difficult it is to get fresh nutritious foods from the fields of California to the dinner plates of urban and rural Canadians safely and in good condition. At this time, without plastics, it would be impossible.

Why is that? Currently, there are no commercially available non-plastic packaging solutions for many types of produce. Innovations in plastic alternatives using fibre are years away from real-world usage—if they can be created at all. If the ECCC’s proposal goes into effect as written, beginning in 2026 there would be no bagged salads in Canadian grocery stores, a convenient and healthy staple for working families; no baby carrots for kids’ lunches, because the plastic bags used to transport baby carrots are made of a breathable plastic film that extends shelf life; no year-round berries, which cannot withstand the rigours of being shipped across the continent without being encased in plastic clamshells; and no bananas, a dietary staple for many Canadians on restricted income, because they are sent to Canada in a plastic bag which controls ripening during shipment. Overall, as supply dwindles, the diversity of produce options will diminish dramatically and prices will inevitably rise.

The impacts in rural and remote communities will be even greater.  Already these communities have issues with logistics and high levels of food waste due to conveyance. Packaging is vital to ensure produce can make the journey to all communities within Canada. 

Canada’s Food Guide advises Canadians to fill half their plate with fruit and vegetables to maintain good health. In August of this year, we saw consumption decline to 2.9 servings a day due to food inflation. A plastic ban will exacerbate the decline due to shortages in the produce aisle and increased produce costs, making it even more difficult for families to afford nutritious choices. 

Rather than the near-elimination of plastics, we have asked the ECCC and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take a collaborative approach with industry. This approach would focus on increasing recycled content and improving recycling systems to address the need for circularity while balancing the universal desire to reduce plastic pollution with the realities of the market. The fresh produce industry is a leader in reducing problematic plastics, introducing more post-consumer recycled content, light-weighting, and increasing the volume of recyclable packaging. The Canadian Produce Marketing Association offers its members a sustainable packaging guide and Western Growers and its farmer members have long responded to consumer demand for more sustainable packaging in their goods. This proactive approach to sustainable packaging has resulted in significant reductions in plastics over the last three years.

The affordability of fresh produce is by far the No. 1 concern of Canadians and the current policy proposed by the government would hurt Canadians in the pocketbook. Canadian consumers should not be victimized by poorly researched public policy that will have unintended negative consequences on the supply and cost of fresh produce. To eliminate plastics in the produce department would do just that, and to maintain the health of the Canadian people we need to do better. The government must shift away from expensive and unattainable goals toward effective policy that can both help the environment while ensuring Canadians maintain access to healthy nutritious food at affordable prices. 

Ron Lemaire is president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and Dave Puglia is president and CEO of Western Growers

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