What is Causing High Food Prices?

We’re all seeing the price of food going up quickly. What steps can we take to mitigate some of these effects?

Reader Contribution by Sue Van Slooten
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by Sue Van Slooten
The cost of basics is rising.

We all have seen the extra bite taken out of our wallets due to the increasing price of food, among other things we all rely on.  A number of issues, consider it the perfect storm of economics, have come together at the same time to contribute to a very worrisome trend.  Consider the following: Inflation, supply chain issues, illness, international politics, corporate greed, uneven playing fields, and bad weather, among many other reasons. Let’s start by looking a little bit at each of these.

A few things to keep in mind:  All things are fluid, nothing stays static. Some issues are beyond anyone’s control, whether we like it or not. Good old fashioned chaos. This all adds up to a sense of uneasiness. And when you mention food, all bets are off the table, as everyone needs it.  Along with a roof over your head, medicines, education, a whole panoply of things that are considered human rights. In this first installment, we will look at some of the reasons food prices are rising. Sit down, take a deep breath, and hang on for a wild ride.

Inflation

There is no doubt inflation is real, and whether or not it will be with us for a short term or something longer, we have no way of knowing.  Inflation can be insidious. It’s nasty. It’s sneaky. I am old enough to remember the horrendous inflation of the 70s, and  let us say, it was no fun. I am not an economist, but it did seem that after a while, inflation calmed. Price caps were little more than a political ploy at the time, but we welcomed them, because we thought they would help us out. Opinions differ whether they did or not.

We’re currently running about 7 or 8% or so, and that’s not good, but it isn’t terrible. There are other places in the world where inflation is 70, 80, even 200 or 300% right now, often associated with failed states. Perspective is important.

Having said that, however, the fact that inflation has ticked upward quickly in the last few months does not mean it is nothing to worry about. It is, bears watching, and calls for taking some countermeasures so it does not get out of control. All we can control is our reaction to it. Becoming stressed or panicking will not help. Let us come together to figure a way to cope.

The Supply Chain

Here we have a big problem. I suppose it could be said that one giant container ship getting stuck in the Suez started it all. That’s simplistic, because my feeling is the causes were well underway before that ship turned sideways in the wind. Consider “just in time” corporate policies: a concept created so that companies would not have to store massive amounts of products in warehouses (i.e., do not keep inventory).

It’s a simple idea: Ship it, unload it, truck it, unload it again, put on shelf. There. Done. Just like that. It has a sister concept for food, called “Case Ready”, where it is the same basic track, but when the food arrives at Wal-Mart or the supermarket you just stick the cases out on the shelf. Not a lot of humans handling this stuff. But the very simplicity of these ideas are also their undoing: The practices cause fragility in the system and there are many complications with often no allowance in the system in case something goes wrong, like weather, fuel shortages, or Covid. Or ships turning sidewise in the wind.  And once you upset this applecart, good luck getting it going again.

Illness

Of course, the pandemic threw a rather major monkey wrench in our meal plans. No two ways about this one. It has upended our lives, and food is no exception. Where I live, supermarkets suddenly became air traffic control centers, with controllers directing you to you lane for check out. There were little round red signs with a pair of feet on the floor, telling you what direction you were supposed to go in. Once you got to check out,  you have  to maneuver around a wall of plexiglass. Of course the conveyor had to wiped down as well. I can say it did a wonderful job on controlling the common cold and the flu. So, I can live with that.

Covid also made me reconsider supermarket pick up. Not being one to seize on the latest, greatest, newest event to come out in the world, I long resisted pickup. But then I did it, and I love it. Why?  It is a huge time saver. You order, you drive down, they put in car, you drive away. Of course, you do not get to see all the latest great products in the store, but hey.

Early on, I cottoned onto something I call the Veggie Box.  Where I work (my day job, so to speak), they have a $12  Canadian small box, a $20 bigger box, and a $12 fruit box, and these are really worth the value. They come out every two weeks. Not every neighborhood will have a program like this but look around, you might find something similar. The $12 box keeps me and hubby in vegetable heaven for a good amount of time.

International Politics

As I write this today, Russia has invaded Ukraine. It has already affected stock markets, the price of oil and natural gas, sending shockwaves around the world.  All of which will hit your pocketbook when it comes to food. We have seen the prices going up because of inflation.  Oil, for example, is tied to almost every step of the commercial food chain, from the growing (fertilizers) to the transport (oil, gas and diesel) to the storage once it gets in the supermarket (freezers, fridges, etc, all run on electricity).

Corporate Greed

This one is always in the background. Drought in California? The price of wheat goes up in say, Canada. What does that have to do with California? Nothing. But it provided an excuse to raise a price somewhere. Today, I paid $17.50 for a 20-pound(10kg) bag of regular, good old-fashioned all-purpose flour. I was a bit shocked, but the price will not be going down, at least for a very long time. And wheat prices are going up. Why? War for one can do this. Russia is a wheat-producing country like the U.S. and Canada. Drought in the U.S. and Canada over the last couple years can also contribute.

The Weather

Drought and high heat lead a nice segue into yet another very serious reason food prices are going up. The U.S. has seen historic droughts the last couple of years. Canada is not unaffected. An insidious side effect of drought is lowering water tables: This leads to no ability to irrigate.

High heat also affects the shipping and transportation of food: Imagine how well you lettuce is going to fare in a hot rail car for days or more trying to move east, and just to add extra insult to injury, imagine a derailment because of heat-warped rails. Don’t laugh. It can and does happen.

I’m hearing that tons of food are thrown out at the supermarket level because by the time they finally get the stuff, it’s rotted, wilted, unfit for human consumption. Animals that cannot be watered eventually die, so meat production is affected.

Conversely, flooding is another extreme, opposite of drought. Every farmer will tell you, a field under water is absolutely useless. Severe storms raise havoc, heavy rains, high winds, hail, all conspire to create destroyed fields.

Now that we have set a rather grim looking table, in future installments we will look at some things we can do to mitigate these effects. We can look at altering our shopping habits, get growing in the spring, and have some fun with recipes and ideas. If there ever was a time for all of us to pull together and cooperate, to look out for one another, that time has come.

Sue Van Slooten teaches cooking and baking classes at her home on beautiful Big Rideau Lake in Ontario, Canada. She specializes in small classes for maximum benefit. Follow her homesteading adventures and check out her class offerings at www.SVanSlooten.com. Email Sue questions at suevanslooten [at] icloud [dot] com, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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