High food prices — which have been destabilizing (and in some cases, vaporizing) governments around the world — are coming belatedly to America. The prices of beef, pork, shrimp, eggs, dairy products and produce are all reaching record highs right now. Overall food prices are up almost 20% this year. The reasons appear at first glance to be varied, but in almost every case the root cause turns out to be either climate change or the practices of industrial agriculture. Indications are that there is no relief in sight. In fact the days of cheap and plentiful food, like the days of cheap and plentiful oil, may well be over for good.
Where’s the Beef? Ground beef prices hit $3.55 a pound in February, marking a 56% increase in four years and a 20-year record. Chalk it up to supply and demand; there are fewer cattle at home on the range in the United States than at any time in the past 63 years. Why? Because of extended, severe drought in most of the places where cattle are raised and their food is grown. [See Dead Town Waking] Why? Because of climate change.
When Pigs Die. Since June of last year, about seven million pigs — about ten per cent of the American herd — have been wiped out by a new virus that was unknown before May of last year. It is not the cause of the record high pork prices now in effect, but the disease virtually guarantees no relief for the foreseeable future. The disease, similar to one that has been ravaging China’s pigs, may have something to do with feeding pig-blood products to pigs. You know, like feeding cow’s brains to cows had something to do with Mad Cow Disease.
Crustacean Deflation. Shrimp prices last month jumped more than 60 per cent above last year’s, to a 14-year high, because of a new bacterial disease ravaging the shrimp farms of Southeast Asia.
Hedge Your Vegetable Bets. The region that produces most of America’s produce (the virtual desert in the middle of California) is experiencing the worst drought in history. Its farmers are leaving idle a half a million acres of cropland this year because there’s no water for irrigation. We’re already paying more for our lettuce.
Wake Up and Smell the Absence of Coffee. It was already expected that world coffee production this season would be about five million bags short of a full cup. Then an historic drought struck the coffee belt of Brazil, source of most of the world’s coffee, decimating this year’s crop. Although the price tsunami has not yet rolled into our supermarkets, it has launched wholesale and futures prices into the stratosphere.
With the average American family spending only 10 percent of its income on food, it’s not surprising that there is a widespread lack of empathy for the millions around the world who are clinging to the edge of extinction as incomes shrink and food prices spike. With the ongoing devastation of the US middle class and the imminent increases in US food prices, Americans are about to get a lot more empathetic.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has observed that when its global food-price index hits 210, governments in the Third World begin to fall like tenpins. You have to wonder; what’s the magic number for America?