The Cost of Food

By Jack D. Miller, Pennsylvania Chapter Food and Agriculture Committee

It’s Economics 101. When supplies go down or demand goes up, we have rising prices. When demand dramatically increased after the worst of the pandemic and things opened up, production did not respond quickly to the demand; supply chains didn’t deliver and the inflation with which we have been dealing was generated.               

Most of us are now concerned with the cost of food, but little attention has been given to what might be the greatest factor affecting food’s cost and availability. Everyone who has ever grown a garden knows how much we depend on the weather for our food. Climate change is already affecting our food supplies. World-wide drought is already threatening production throughout the world. The American west has been a target of this world-wide danger.

California and the Southwest produce a great deal of our fruits and vegetables. California alone produces about 50% of our fruits and vegetables. Arizona produces 90% of our winter lettuce. Drought has drastically affected the farm fields in these semi-arid regions where this food is grown. Reduced winter snowpack and more rapid melting have impacted irrigation. The Bureau of Land Management has recently instituted reduction of water allotments from the Colorado River, a major source of irrigation water for Arizona and Southern California. 42% of all surface and well water in this country is used in irrigation. Water levels in Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam illustrate how drastically the flow on the Colorado has been reduced. The lake now is at 25% of capacity. The same is happening to rivers throughout the world.  

Excessive heat affects both crop and animal production. Animal agriculture requires immense water usage. It’s not just the water used directly by the animals, but all the water needed to grow the crops that feed the animals. It has been estimated that it takes 600 gallons of water to produce one pound of hamburger. Excessive heat not only puts more stress on crops and animals, but also draws more moisture out of the soil. What seems counterintuitive is the fact that climate change is also giving us more intensive and frequent floods. Animal agriculture is also the greatest source of water pollution from both runoff from the fields to grow the animals' food and the massive amounts of waste to which all that food is converted. Can we afford to pollute clean water when we have widespread drought?

The levels of food production world-wide influences the cost of our food directly. The production of barley, millet, corn, pulse, rice, and wheat are being impacted by climate change. Commodity crops like corn, wheat, and rice are traded worldwide. Our farmers export between 10% and 20% of their corn. Shortages in other parts of the word increases the world market price of commodity crops, which means higher prices right here at home, which we see reflected in higher grocery bills. The world’s supply of wheat, corn, and barley has been disturbed by the war in Ukraine, a major producer of wheat.     

The oceans, another significant source of food, are also under increasing stress. Healthy coral reefs serve as nurseries for 25% of the world’s fish. Water temperatures world-wide are increasing which leads to coral bleaching which can result in the death of the reef. 30% of atmospheric CO2 is being absorbed by the oceans, which then produces carbonic acid, which increases ocean acidity. The increase in acidity can interfere with the formation of shells in creatures like oysters and clams.

Climate change is altering weather patterns so that rain in many areas does not fall in the patterns of the past. Because warm air holds more moisture, a warming climate not only exacerbates drought, it brings excessive rain in a very short period of time. It seems almost nightly we hear of another horrendous flash flood caused by one of these downpours. Farmers’ fields are not only threatened by drought, but also a sudden downpour that can destroy a crop. While there have always been these threats to agriculture, climate change exacerbates these threats.

While we produce the greater part of our food purchases, we do import 15% of our food. Coffee and bananas are just a few of the items. Weather-related crop failures have affected this year’s production of coffee in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer. You can expect the price of coffee to respond to these weather events.

Food production is just one of the threats presented by our warming world. It is difficult for many to internalize the threat being imposed by this change, but seeing their grocery bills grow with growing food shortages may be something that can stir the demand for action from a greater number of citizens.

This blog was included as part of the November 2022 Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition!