January 2013 Issue

Rising Food Costs — How Last Year’s Drought May Affect This Year’s Prices
By David Yeager
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 15 No. 1 P. 22

No one can say with certainty whether climate change is directly responsible for the droughts that have plagued the United States over the past couple years, but you can’t deny that 2011 and 2012 brought exceptionally dry weather to significant portions of the country.

In 2011, the most severe drought in decades hit large segments of Texas, decimating the state’s cattle industry. In 2012, the Midwest and its grain crops bore the brunt of the drought. Although fluctuations in rainfall occur every year, extended periods without enough rain could pose a serious problem for the United States in the future.

Jack Juvik, PhD, a professor and the graduate program coordinator in the department of crop sciences at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, says water issues are affecting most countries—dramatically in some cases—and the United States is no exception. He cites areas of the Central Valley in California where the salt level of the soil already prevents the growth of a range of valuable crops. In places like this, long-term drought could be especially damaging. If water becomes scarcer, it could multiply this effect and lead to disputes among regions and states vying for use of the same major water systems.

“So not only is [water scarcity] going to affect what we can grow, it’s going to affect where we can grow, and it’s also going to lead to huge, huge battles, legal [battles] and, probably, armed conflict [in some countries]. There are a lot of places right now that are on the edge of conflict due to the fact people are fighting for water rights,” Juvik explains.

Since water is essential for life, it should come as no surprise that between 80% and 90% of freshwater consumption in the United States is attributable to agriculture. In his research, Juvik has measured variations in phytochemical levels up to 20% in some drought-affected fruits and vegetables, but that effect is difficult to measure because each nutrient, as well as each fruit or vegetable, is affected differently. However, these variations aren’t likely to have a significant effect on human health; a much greater threat from drought is its effect on crop yields.

In the United States, irrigated crops have been less affected by drought than nonirrigated crops. More efficient water management in recent years has helped to conserve water that’s used on crops, particularly those that require irrigation. Where farmers once flooded fields and orchards, those who can afford it have switched to more efficient drip irrigation systems. Most fruits and vegetables require irrigation.

The United States also imports a significant amount of produce, such as bananas, tomatoes, melons, peppers, and potatoes, from other countries. For these reasons, food price increases for produce probably have been less related to water availability than to other factors such as transportation and refrigeration costs. As long as farmers can maintain irrigation, the availability of produce should remain stable.

Hidden Costs
After Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast in October 2012, many Americans probably forgot about the oppressive heat and drought that affected a large part of the country this past summer. But with nearly two-thirds of the United States still affected by drought, consumers could feel the effects well into this year.

Because the drought was concentrated in the Midwest, the crops hit hardest were grain products such as corn, soybeans, and wheat, which aren’t irrigated. Aside from the obvious rise in the cost of these staple crops, David Bitter, CEO of Cropfax, a provider of seed selection decision-making tools, says prices are likely to rise for nearly all food products.

“Grains are just such large volume [items], and they go into everything. Corn is in [nearly] everything that has been processed, and you’ve got aisles and aisles of it,” Bitter says. “You’ve got one small produce section in the store, which is kind of like the jewel in the crown; you’ve got strawberries, you’ve got fresh fruit. But the rest of the store, unless it’s a bottled fruit or a packaged fruit, is pretty much a derivative of corn or soy or wheat: your granola bars, your cereals, your chips.”

Higher grain prices also are reflected in the cost of animal feed. This affects food costs because it increases the cost of animal farming. Animal products already cost more to produce than vegetable products, and drought exacerbates these costs.

“The consumption of water for the production of meats—for beef, poultry, hogs, etc—per acre and per pound of product outstrips produce and grain by many, many factors,” Bitter says. “So it [seems likely that] if you have a higher cost of grain and a scarcity of water, meat prices will continue to escalate.”

Overall, the USDA forecasts that food prices will rise 3% to 4% in 2013, but prices for some meat and dairy products may decrease in the short term. This is because some farmers are reducing their herds in response to the drought. Once the extra supply has been consumed, prices for beef, pork, poultry, and dairy are expected to rise between 2.5% and 5%.

Stretching Food Budgets
Taken together, these factors suggest that consumers will need to stretch their food budgets a little further than usual. Dee Sandquist, MS, RD, LD, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says small changes in food buying and preparation can make a big difference. While the additional cost of meat may be challenging, there are ways to work around it. One way is to purchase cheaper cuts of meat for some meals. Another is to add plant protein.

“Some people will choose to eat more plant-based proteins, and that’s certainly a healthful choice,” Sandquist says. “So it might be a good time to mix some lentils in with that ground beef if you want to stretch your food dollar a little bit more.”

Cooking at home rather than eating out also can save a significant amount of money. This requires more of a time investment, but it doesn’t have to become a burden. Clients can cook a large batch of food and freeze a portion for later use to save time in the kitchen.

Buying raw ingredients can cut costs, too. A 5-lb bag of potatoes costs much less per pound than a 1-lb bag of potato chips, and it will go much further toward meeting nutritional needs. Beware of overbuying, though. A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that Americans waste as much as 40% of the food they buy, resulting in a loss of $165 billion per year. The best way to save money on food is to plan meals and eat what’s already in the house.

“All it takes is five minutes of planning before you go to the store. Look at your schedule for the next week so you’re able to buy accordingly, especially produce,” Sandquist says. “Will you be home or are you going to be gone? If it’s a week when you’re out a lot, you’re not going to have a chance to eat that produce unless you take it with you for a snack.”

— David Yeager is a freelance writer and editor based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.