Cost of food hits new high, politics is as usual

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the cost of food increased in February for the eighth consecutive month and reached an all time high. You heard a bit of this in the news coverage of the grassroots protests in Tunisia and Egypt. While not even the major cause of the unrest, frustration over the cost of food played a part.

I read a comment today at Climate Progress that had posted it’s take on this fact. Someone said “In the U.S., where we spend less than 20% of household income on food, at least at first, this will have little impact on us. However, over time it will become more and more of an issue.

I had to disagree. It is already becoming an issue. Most residents of this suburbanite enclave might be somewhat immune to the rising costs, limiting their reactions to a bit of grumbling while loading up at Safeway or Nob Hill. That would not be the case were you dependent on a Food Bank for your next meal. They are being forced to purchase a larger portion of their supplies and these are costing more every month.

It is useful to understand the causes of this unprecedented rise in prices. I find three of them to be key: extreme weather events, the cost of fossil fuels and US Energy / Agriculture policy.

We have seen enough of the extreme weather events in the news that some have begun to write about catastrophe fatigue. Most importantly, the extreme heat in Russia last year severely damaged their wheat crop. Russia has stopped exporting wheat. That might not be so bad had we not had two more extreme events that affect world wide wheat prices. There is a long lasting drought in the Shandong province of China, their major wheat production area. This will reduce the 2011 crops and maybe eve 2012 depending on how long the drought lasts… remember that we are just coming out of a three year drought. Among the other wheat exporters, Australia is very limited due to droughts in the Southwest and floods in Queensland.

Without opening up the discussion of whether or not climate change is human caused, this increase in extreme weather events is to be expected given the undeniable fact that our weather is warming.

Most of world-wide agriculture is very dependent on factory scale application of fertilizers, chiefly nitrogen that is derived from natural gas. That is only one link. Another is the fact that less and less of our food supply is grown locally, requiring significant fuel use just to transport it from the field to the table. It is no longer like the days when I was a student when we ate whatever was available locally and a mandarin orange was a Christmas stocking treat. The next time you go shopping, look at the country of origin on the item and think about the cost of getting that into your shopping cart.

It is a privilege to be able to eat peaches in February and kiwi in July. We just need to acknowledge that there is a cost for that privilege and that cost will continue to rise. We are using more fossil fuel energy every year and finding less new energy reserves. That can not be good for reducing costs.

Finally, I listed US Energy and Ag policies as one of the causes. At present, over 10% of the world-wide corn production is consumed to produce ethanol for fuel. In the US, this is over 30%. This is good the for big corporate agribusiness which is getting massive governmental subsidies while it over uses inputs of natural gas derived nitrogen. It is not good for you and I, but we can’t do anything about it. The politics is such that corn state senators will block any effort to change either the ethanol requirement or the subsidies for corn.

Come to think of it, our CA Senators favor subsidies for Ag’s commodity crops themselves, just cotton and rice rather than corn.

So what are we to do? My wife and I grow as much of our own food as we can. We share with neighbors. We joined the California Rare Fruit Growers to learn more about what we should be doing. I registered Green as the big parties just don’t get it yet. I have joined Transition California to help us all prepare for the days when the costs of fossil fuels and the price of food leads us down the same path followed by the Tunisians and Egyptians.

This is scheduled to appear in Green Talk column of Morgan Hill Times on Tues. Mar. 8, 2011.

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  • Thanks for this piece, Wes. There is a Transition Culver City that has popped up in my town. They’ve been getting good coverage in the Culver City News and Linda Piera-Avila (the GP candidate I managed for State Assembly race in 2010) and I have links to them.

  • Great post. Here in rural Utah where I live now, $8 a hour is considered not bad pay. Rising food prices will obviously severely impact people making that.

    Wal-Mart reports that at 11 pm on the 31st of the month, their stores are filled with families piling food into carts. At midnight, the welfare checks are deposited and they purchase food for themselves and their families.

  • Thanks for the good words, Bob and Lisa. And thank you for the Transition Culver City link. The transition town movement is a meeting place for like minds. One of our problems is growing that population. Another is having something demonstrably effective to those who decide to take a look at it.

  • DJ

    In our area, the price of animal feed, from corn-based feeds to barley to dog food, is up about 40% since the first of the year, an annualized increase of about 240%. You can bet that’s going to be reflected in our food prices soon.

    And while the production of ethanol from corn is absurd, since it costs more energy than it produces, it’s also worth noting that far more corn goes into the production of High Fructose Corn Syrup, which also reduces the amount of (real) food available. Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, makes an argument that our agribusinesses produce HFCS and hydrogenated soy oil because they need to sell more food to affluent Americans who have money. There is no profit in selling tortillas or soy meat to the poor. Instead, they pack our food as full of empty calories as possible. And billions of dollars in farm subsidies ensure the primacy of this junk food.

    It’s also worth noting that our food is relatively cheap, thanks to fossil fuel and agribusiness subsidies. A $2 loaf of bread costs about 3% of an American’s typical daily wage ($8/hr). In contrast, a 12 cent loaf of bread costs 10% of a typical Sri Lankan’s daily wage ($2/day). Sri Lanka doesn’t produce wheat, so the push to adopt bread as a staple at the expense of rice means less local food consumed and more money flowing out of Sri Lankan pockets into someone else’s. It’s the same trend that we face here.

    I am a dairy farmer – I produce artisan cheese on a small farm. I am not eligible for any subsidies, and I don’t ask for any. But I’d like to see agribusinesses compete on a level playing field. Cut their subsidies. Cut subsidies for their fossil fuel fertilizer. Let junk food prices rise. Then real food will be more competitive.

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