The Smart Money: The high cost of food

Posted Tuesday, April 22, 2014 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The high cost of food

by Gina Hamilton

You may have noticed — how could you not notice? — that the price of food has increased in recent months. Those price increases are a function of an exceptionally cold winter in the east and the south, drought in the west, where much of our non-summer fruits and vegetables come from, as well as a great deal of our beef, and a poor harvest generally nationwide.

You may have also noticed that the quality of the produce on our shelves has grown poorer, for the same reasons.

In addition, the cost to bring food from California or Chile has gone up, because the cost of the fossil fuels necessary to truck or ship or ferry by train has also risen.

So the short answer for why food prices have gone up so dramatically is ‘supply and demand’, while the longer answer is ‘supply and demand caused by climate change’. Climate change is affecting nearly every aspect of food production. Drought means that the beef cattle have to be slaughtered younger and skinnier because there’s no grass on the grazing lands and thus, hay and water has to be purchased and trucked in for them, an expensive proposition. Dairy cows, too, are expensive to maintain when they can’t be fed on grass.

Drought in California means that agricultural irrigation is cut back to save drinking water for human populations. Some orchards are abandoned; some fields lie fallow. There may be no artichokes this year. The almond trees may die. There may not be a 2014 vintage out of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. It’s a $5 billion loss to California’s farmers and insular agricultural economy, one that will be very difficult to absorb.

Cold winter weather means that our pancake syrup is going to be a lot more expensive this year, because the sap didn’t run on schedule. Citrus fruits froze on the trees in the deep south; peanuts didn’t get the five months of warm weather they need to set seed. Because of the late spring, farmers are only just now able to work the soil, when typically, there’d be crops in the ground by now, even in Maine, where we’d be planting peas and onions in a normal year.

In the great heartland, winter wheat crops withered because of drought; there was a massive failure in Russia and China last year, too, adding to the human demand for staple grain crops. Corn and soy began to recover after record droughts in 2012. But there wasn’t enough for livestock, so expect meat prices to continue to rise.

And in Maine, our shellfisheries are being decimated by an invasive species that has been helped along by warming seas.

None of this is good news for people who eat food, just trying to keep ahead of the curve.

So what’s the answer? We need to rethink how food is grown, and where. Small farms in every state must be allowed to do what they do without hinderance. Recent laws have made it more difficult for small farmers to sell chickens, milk, and other produce, and to acquire food for animals for free that is both nutritious for the animals and very healthy for the farmers’ bottom lines. Those laws must change to reflect the new climate-induced reality.

Towns and cities and neighborhood associations must get out of the way. If a family chooses to tear up its front lawn and plant food crops, bravo. If they choose to keep goats or chickens or even a family dairy cow, even in the city, that’s great. Rules about keeping animals in town limits are beginning to fall, but they must fall faster.  Waste land, no matter who owns it, should be given over to the local neighborhood to grow food crops or graze animals if they wish. Land adjacent to rail lines, land left behind after a building burns, land attached to an abandoned building, should not be allowed to go unused if someone could make good use of it.

We should all be growing dwarf citrus trees indoors. 

Local self-sufficiency — or as self-sufficient as possible — should be our goal. It must be our goal. Those who put up vegetables and fruit last season were ahead of the game in a very big way. These last two years of farming disaster should have taught us a very valuable lesson. We can no longer rely on agricultural powerhouses like California and Nebraska and Iowa to produce our food. It’s up to us to learn that lesson, and to act accordingly.

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