We are all aware of escalating food prices, but what’s driving the shortages and the price hikes? The answer is multifaceted: global political unrest, inflation, weather anomalies, the nuclear incident in Japan and the rising price of oil that increases the cost of planting, harvesting and transportation have all played their part.
The US & Abroad Facing Food Shortages
Over the past several months, US cropland has been decimated by a one-two-three punch. Flooding and tornadoes have destroyed portions of Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma croplands, leading to crop failure for many US staples: rice, corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops. Livestock has also been negatively impacted in many of these regions.
Many outside US borders aren’t faring any better. France is experiencing drought and Russia is likewise battling drought along with an infestation of locust. Canadian farmers have reported late planting due to unseasonably wet conditions.
The price of coffee, sugar and cocoa hasn’t totally caught up with us yet, but recent political unrest in Africa has already impacted supplies of sugar, coffee and cocoa, driving up their price to unprecedented levels. Superfund Financial officials have stated it is possible prices for these commodities could increase five to ten-fold by 2014. Wal-Mart’s CEO, Bill Simon, has weighed in by warning the public there will be an across-the-board price hike for foods.
Already, the price of corn has nearly doubled over the past few years; partially due to one-third of the nation’s corn crop having been allocation for fuel production. Add in another 44% increase in soy bean prices, 47% increase in wheat prices, and projections for sugar, butter, oats, and orange commodity price hikes and you get the perfect storm for runaway food prices.
More To Come
Since the Fukushima meltdown, the F.D.A. says our food chain is still safe. In fact, safe enough that they do not seem to have committed to strict guidelines on testing fish caught in the Pacific Ocean (the one that Japan continues to spill nuclear waste into).
Responsible restaurants and sushi bars have turned to performing their own tests to extend peace of mind to their customers. Although the US media hasn’t reported extensively on the impact to the food chain over the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, the poisoning of Japan’s food crops, Kobe Beef and fish are a realistic concern. While radiation continues to leak into the Pacific Ocean and radiation plume particles are deposited globally from Fukushima through snowfall and rainwater, testing has shown Japan’s crops and fish to be contaminated. Fish contamination is especially problematic with regards to world food prices, as Japan exports 15% of the global catch, although fishing in the region has been significantly slowed due to heavy damages of fishing boats and production in the area. High concentrations of radioactive contamination have been reported in albacore, anchovy, and Japanese sand lance caught in their waters.
To date, Officials have underplayed the long term effects of consuming fish caught from the Pacific Ocean, yet recent studies reflect bottom fish and fish that travel close to surface of the Pacific near Fukushima are found to have high levels of radiation and new concerns are being reported on contaminated fish found in Iwa, Japan located 500 kilometers from Fukushima. Studies also warn of health risks with consumption of fish that have been affected by radiation poisoning near Fukushima that then travel beyond the affected area and are caught elsewhere in the Pacific-with tuna being at the top of list. Many countries have already placed a ban on fish imports from the belabored country.
Fortunately, the US imports less than 4% of its food supply-opposed to 15% of seafood’s– from Japan. However, the FDA has placed a ban on Japanese imports of milk products, vegetables, fruits and beef. Due to supply and demand, the recent ban on the relatively low percentage of Japan’s imports to the US market can have an effect on our food prices.
Problems with exports from Japan are egregious enough, but with regards to safe consumption of fish and shellfish, the Gulf oil spill must be taken in to consideration. B.P sprayed a reported 870,000 gallons of the dispersant Corexit over the gulf in an attempt to control the 2010 oil spill. Since then, cleanup workers and people living in the affected areas have reported illnesses, with some having to be hospitalized, who point to the Gulf oil spill as the cause.
Reports from the media and officials disagree there are health concerns while residents cry foul over B.P and the government’s urging that nothing is amiss. Those already effected, and others worried over the long-term effects of the dumping of Corexit dispersants aren’t buying the “there’s nothing to see…” stance on B.P’s part that is being reported by certain sectors of the mainstream media. In an attempt to uncover the truth, it’s worthwhile to understand Corexit readily claims, “No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product.” Many critiquing the impact on human and sea life claim the heavy dispersant spray did nothing but settle the oil below the surface of the Gulf waters; out of sight, out of mind. There seems to be judication of oil spill workers and resident’s health risk concerns as cleanup workers report being warned not to wear face masks during the clean up (ostensibly to calm resident’s fears and quash media attention). Further, many fisherman and cleanup workers have been told not to discuss concerns they have over health risks of Corexit, most specifically Benzene, one of the chemicals used to eradicate the oil spill which has been found to cause cancer.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has gone on record with their belief that it is not necessary to monitor fish and shellfish caught in the Gulf, as they do not consider the chemicals used in the dispersant Corexit to pose any health risks to humans.
It appears the consumer will need to practice due diligence with regards to consumption of sea food from both the Gulf and Pacific Ocean. If it is ever determined by officials the impact to sea life with the Gulf oil spill to be higher than limits set by the FDA, expect sea food prices to skyrocket.
Radiation Reaches Our Borders
Already, many states in the US have reported increased radiation contaminants in drinking water, with the highest concentration being reported in Chattanooga, Tennessee, although the EPA has assured the population that levels are far below the maximum containment level. Milk in Vermont was found to have the highest contamination of Cesilum-137, although Washington, Oregon, Phoenix and Los Angeles had varying degrees of contamination in milk, with some pushing the allowed limits of maximum containment set by the EPA.
Very concerning is recent high radioactive isotopes found in Boise, Idaho-one of the nation’s farm belts that ranks 3rd in nationally grown vegetables. The majority crop grown in Boise and surrounding areas is potatoes. Boise also produces Hay, Alfalfa, Kentucky Blue grass, barley, sugar beets, Lentils, sweet corn, carrot, onion, garden beans, turnip, lettuce, and grapes. It isn’t only crops that Boise contributes to the US food chain. They also raise a portion of the US market of beef. Although we must insist on the safety of the food we eat, and should expect the EPA to do their job of watch-dogging the food chain, should concentrations of radiation contamination be classified above acceptable EPA limits, crops and beef may cease to be distributed from this region, and the price of these crops will see a sharp price increase; again led mostly by supply and demand.
Should the Chain Be Broken
Many of us never consider how our food arrived to the grocer’s shelf, but rather that what we need is available. The truth is, grocers no longer carry back stock, and why just before a storm or a situation arises like the recent tsunami alert in Hawaii, the shelves are picked bare. Today’s modern grocer carries only a 72-hour food supply. But should an emergency arrive that has lasting effects, and deliveries are disrupted, shelves could remain bare. As Americans, we have relied too heavily on constant trips to the grocers.
Blame it on the Bankers
Grocers have long depended upon lines of credit, as they operate on profit and loss, with some stores locations pulling in more than others. But should bankers start tightening their belts on these lines of credit, as they have with consumer loans, the results could be disastrous to food supplies. Based upon the US dollar’s decline, we should all be preparing for such an eventuality.
Genetically Altered Food
Of course, none of the issues already discussed address the possible ramifications of GMO (genetically modified organisms) food, or GM (genetically modified) food. Studies preformed on lab rats and other mammals do not generally reach the public, but studies that have been released are alarming; infertility, allergic reactions, low birth rate, immune deficiencies, gastro-intestinal illness and more.
Many consumers have turned to organically grown fruits and vegetables, but it is possible these growers will be negatively impacted by Bill S.510, the Food Safety Bill which was recently passed. Tighter controls, documentation, and the high cost of mandated insurance coverage for organic growers may drive up the already higher costs of healthy fruits and vegetables, and some warn that regulations may disallow organic growers to sell their produce beyond a narrow geographical parameter-another words an organic grower in Oregon may not be allowed to sell to Washington grocers. Until new regulations begin to take effect, it is anyone’s guess what the backlash may be.
It is probable organic ranchers will experience an increase in their organic feed, which will drive up the cost of organic beef.
So, What are the Solutions?
None of what’s been discussed is good news to the consumer, especially with high unemployment, higher taxation, and lower income for those who have been forced to accept lower wages or part-time work during the continued economic downswing.
The good news is there are many ways we can cushion ourselves from rapidly increasing food prices and still eat healthy. The bad news is it takes work.
Growing a garden from heirloom seed is one of the few assurances we have against skyrocketing food prices. Why heirloom? Heirloom seed produces fruits and vegetables that are higher in vitamins and nutrients. Their seed can be saved from one season to the other. Another benefit with heirloom seed is knowing what you’re putting into your body, unlike the unknown health effects that may show up later when eating GMO and GM fruits, vegetables and grains. By growing your own food you control the use of pesticides, herbicides, and some fertilizers that have been found to contain carcinogens. If you haven’t already, study up on composting and small worm farms that will turn soil into a rich environment for the best garden yields possible.
If you already garden, think about a greenhouse and cold frames to extend the growing season; especially for those of you who live in colder climates.
If you’ve grown alarmed over eating seafood caught from the Gulf Coast and Japan, you may want to consider a fishpond. You’d be in good company; although not reported, many folks have turned to cultivating their own fish supply in response to questionable food safety measures with regards to the fishing industry. Internet websites, bloggers and You Tube offers free do-it-yourself instructions on building and maintaining fishponds. For those who live in cold climates, where the cost of heating a pond may be prohibitive, look for advice on large indoor fish tanks that can be maintained in a basement.
Two excellent sources of protein are chickens and goats. They offer high yield for minimal expenditure of time and money. Chickens will provide eggs and meat, and should you have the land, free-range chickens can forage for a portion of their food. It may a surprise to some living in urban areas, but since a resurgence of public interest in raising chickens, many municipalities allow them within city limits. There might be restrictions on roosters; neighbors don’t typically enjoy the 5:00 AM crow of a rooster. The good news is hens are resourceful and will lay eggs without benefit of a rooster.
Goats will yield milk, butter, yogurt and meat. For those living in rural areas, your biggest concern will be sturdy fencing, for goats are escape artists, so be sure to study up on fencing requirements before you bring home a goat. And should you decide to take the leap of goat ownership, you will need more than one because goats are very social animals.
So far we’ve covered gardening, fish farms and keeping chickens and goats for food security. There is one more step you might consider; food storage. While the price of food continues to escalate, foods that are purchased at current prices will be protected from inflation and shortages.
Food storage can come in many forms; bulk foods, canned goods, dehydrated and freeze-dried foods, and MRE’S. However, it should be mentioned recent demand for dehydrated, freeze dried and MRE’S has lead to a sharp increase of price. Many suppliers of these long-term storage foods are back ordered because of demand relating to their long shelf life (usually between 5 – 15 years), so practice due-diligence with regards to back-order time lines. But before you place an order, be aware that some suppliers “pad” their shipping prices, while others charge a flat $5.00 shipping fee, no matter how much shipping weight your order entails.
Typically, the purchase of bulk foods can save upwards of 35% or more of the cost of food. Check with larger chain stores who sell in bulk and ask their price for beans, rice, baking mixes, pasta’s and spices so you can do a cost comparison. You should also check with a grower in your area. A grower’s prices are often much lower, as you are then cutting out the middle man-the grocers and their necessary profit margin. By purchasing bulk quantities from a grower, you can drastically reduce the price of beans, wheat, and fruits and vegetables. For those of you willing to home can fruits and vegetables, your pantry shelves can be filled for future use. Another benefit of buying from a grower is the ability to investigate whether pesticides, herbicides and certain fertilizers have been used.
The cost of canned goods can be greatly reduced through coupon clipping and checking weekly online circulars, newspaper inserts and purchasing canned goods during flat sales, usually held once or twice a year, which typically reduces their costs by 50% or more.
We have control over empty pantry shelves, even if it’s done one trip to the grocers at a time. With food storage comes freedom from worry, so we can get on with the business of living. But you’d better get busy now. There seems to be every indication we are in for a bumpy ride.