In many homes, dry pasta is a ubiquitous pantry item.
Busy families with picky eaters can prepare steaming bowls of cost-friendly spaghetti or penne in minutes, a salve to hectic schedules and stretched budgets.
Of late, those costs aren’t nearly as friendly. Pasta prices have been climbing rapidly during this spell of high inflation, far exceeding the increases for most other grocery items.
As of October, the price of pasta products had jumped 27.4 per cent over the past year, according to Statistics Canada, compared with general food inflation of 10 per cent. Dry and fresh pasta was up 45 per cent. The average retail price for a 500-gram package of pasta was $3.40 in October, an increase of $1.19 (54 per cent) from two years earlier.
It’s not just a Canadian trend. In Britain, the price of pasta products and couscous has risen by 37 per cent in the past year. Costs are also spiking in Italy, where the average resident consumes more than 20 kilograms of the staple every year.
Consumers are feeling the lag effects of a double whammy for wheat prices: The Prairies experienced the worst drought in decades in 2021, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in fewer wheat exports and soaring costs for the key ingredient.
What’s next for consumer prices is anyone’s guess, hinging on an unpredictable mix of weather and geopolitics. But if recent history is any guide, this bout of climbing pasta prices could give way to years of stagnation, offering some relief to weary shoppers.
“We often see what we call stickiness in prices. Prices go up much easier than they come down,” said Mike von Massow, a professor of food economics at the University of Guelph.
Even so, price cuts wouldn’t be outlandish.
“There is probably a greater possibility of prices coming down” for pasta than for other grocery items, Prof. von Massow said.
In large part, that’s because pasta is heavily influenced by wheat prices. On packages of orzo and orecchiette, spaghetti and bucatini, there is often just one ingredient listed: durum wheat semolina. (Sometimes, water is also mentioned, while egg is also used in many pasta types.)
High-quality pasta is generally made from durum, a hard wheat that is ground into semolina, and which is also used in couscous and flatbreads. Canada is the world’s top exporter of durum, sending about $1.9-billion of the grain to other countries in 2021. So far this year, the top buyers of Canadian durum, in dollar terms, are Morocco, Algeria, Italy and the United States.
Durum prices started to rise dramatically in 2021, owing to drought conditions in the Prairies that effectively cut yields in half. There was a rebound in production in 2022, although not to usual levels.
“That’s why the 2021 drought had such an impact – because Canada is the world’s largest supplier. So what happens here can’t be offset by big production” elsewhere, said Chuck Penner, owner of LeftField Commodity Research in Winnipeg.
Russia and Ukraine are not big exporters of durum, but they are major producers of common wheat, which became pricey because of the war and its effect on global trade. Common wheat can be mixed with durum in softer pastas, and is used in boxed macaroni and cheese.
Consumers are also bearing the brunt of rising production costs, such as fertilizer, labour, transportation and packaging. And while Canada has several domestic pasta makers, it also imported $626-million of the product in 2021. Most comes from the U.S., exposing shoppers to higher import costs from a weaker loonie.
The current situation is akin to that of 2007 and 2008, when global food prices surged for a handful of reasons, including widespread drought in grain-producing regions. By the summer of 2008, pasta prices in Canada had increased by more than 40 per cent within months.
What followed was a decade-plus of relative calm as growing conditions improved. Prices ebbed and flowed, but they netted out to hardly any change. In nominal terms, pasta was similarly priced in late 2021 as in 2008.
“If you look historically at inflation numbers, when you see jumps in inflation, what you often see after that is flat pricing,” Prof. von Massow said.
Things have started to trend in a better direction.
As production has ramped up, durum prices have come off the boil, although they remain higher than two years ago. Fertilizer and shipping costs have also fallen from peak levels.
Another solid growing season would help. That’s more of a wild-card element. Richard Gray, who plants durum and other crops at his family farm near Indian Head, Sask., about 70 kilometres east of Regina, said there’s limited moisture reserves in the soil after a dry fall.
Farmers will be “relying on rainfalls next year, which is not uncommon, but it adds to the risk,” said Mr. Gray, who’s also an agriculture professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
For many consumers, pasta remains a relatively affordable meal during this spate of inflation, despite the recent sticker shock. It can be an opportunity to trade down to a cheaper product for some relief.
Still, there is a segment of the population for whom there is no trading down. In a recent study, Britain’s Office for National Statistics tracked the lowest prices for a variety of grocery staples. As of September, the lowest-priced pasta had jumped by 60 per cent in a year. Only vegetable oil had increased more.
“If you think about people who are getting squeezed by food-price inflation and by inflation generally, some of these less-expensive staples are ones that are having the highest price increases,” said Prof. von Massow. “The people on [income] assistance, the people on fixed pensions, the working poor, are probably bearing a disproportionate burden of food-price inflation.”