A surge in takeout pizza orders, baking and pantry stockpiling has created an unexpected “burst in demand” for Canadian wheat and lentils, as restaurants remain shuttered and governments continue to urge social distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Prices for Canadian spring wheat, a key ingredient in pizza crusts, for red lentils, a pantry staple, and for the durum wheat used in pasta have all soared in the weeks since the pandemic forced broad lockdowns of non-essential businesses.
Meantime, the low Canadian dollar, hit hard by collapsing oil prices and coronavirus lockdowns, has provided farmers with an additional boost.
“No one wants to profit off of a pandemic but these prices are definitely good news for us,” said Rob Stone, who grows both spring wheat and red lentils on his 7,500-acre farm in Davidson, Sask. “Like every sector of the economy, we’ve got products that aren’t doing well, so this helps.”
Red lentil prices jumped 76 per cent to 30 cents per lb in the past six weeks, while spring wheat prices rose 25 per cent to $7.25 per bushel. Durum wheat rose 20 per cent to roughly $9 per bushel during the period.
The desire for red lentils has been intense enough that Canadian farmers are expected to seed and additional 25 per cent of their acres with the crop this year, according to Pulse Canada.
Durum really is the rock star of grains right now
Neil Townsend, chief market analyst with FarmLink Marketing Solutions
“People are ordering pizza like crazy, flour sales are robust and pasta and pulses are selling because of this push to pantry preparedness,” said Neil Townsend, chief market analyst with FarmLink Marketing Solutions in Winnipeg. “The real winners from that shift in behaviour are durum and spring wheat and pulses like lentils. For all those things, Canada is among the biggest exporters in the world.”
Global demand for red lentils, a staple in both Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine as well as in North American and European pantries, surged in recent weeks as consumers seek to stockpile non-perishable foods.
An additional boost has come from a decision by India’s central government to provide 1 kilogram of pulses each month for a period of three months to all ration cardholders or at-risk consumers — a group that includes about 800 million people.
As India’s farmers scramble to meet these new domestic needs, demand for Canadian lentils has soared on world markets.
“India is removing its own pulses from the market and we’re seeing our own grocery stores cleaned out,” said Gordon Bacon, chief executive of Pulse Canada. “That’s what’s driving up prices.”
A general trend toward plant-based proteins has continued and a shortage of shipping containers has complicated deliveries and prompted many food companies to keep more of the ingredient on hand.
“Just in time delivery doesn’t work if you can’t get containers,” Bacon said. “So companies are storing a lot more than they might have.”
The surge in demand comes after India, one of the largest importers of Canadian pulses, hiked tariffs on peas and lentils in 2017 amid an abundance of domestic supply. Those measures were largely responsible for knocking red lentil prices down from previous highs of 40 cents per pound to about half that amount.
Exports of Canadian durum wheat had also suffered a steep decline following the imposition of strict country of origin labelling rules in Italy. But a consumer run on the kitchen cupboard staple has prompted a reversal of fortune for that commodity, too.
“Durum really is the rock star of grains right now,” said Townsend. “We lost the restaurant market for pasta but people are buying a lot more in stores.”
Meantime, spring wheat, commonly used in American-style pizza, has enjoyed a similar resurgence as quarantined families call on their local delivery operations.
Indeed, many pizza chains focused on delivery and takeout have continued to thrive even as the pandemic roils the food service industry. For instance, Dominoes Pizza saw same store sales rise 7.1 per cent in the first four weeks of the second quarter and announced plans to hire 10,000 workers to meet demand.
For farmers planning their fall harvest, a key question now will be whether current demand persists or dies out as countries loosen COVID-19 restrictions, Townsend said. Acres seeded with red lentils in the next month will be harvested in the fall, when many countries are hoping to reopen their economies.
“There’s definitely back end risk if this goes away,” he said. “When it comes to lentils, not everyone is a vegan. They might just eat through what they bought and return to old buying patterns.”