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In this May 1, 2014 photo, irrigation water runs along the dried-up ditch between the rice farms to provide water for the rice fields in Richvale, Calif.

Little water remains in this irrigation ditch between rice fields in drought-ravaged Richvale, California, in May 2014.

PHOTOGRAPH JAE C. HONG, ASSOCIATED PRESS  

Andrea Stone

for National Geographic

Published June 27, 2014

Drought, disease, and growing demand are contributing to rising food prices, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting this week that the cost of food is up 2.5 percent since May 2013.

The federal government expects food prices to rise as much as an additional 3.5 percent in 2014, with heftier price increases expected for fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and pork.

Fresh fruits are expected to rise 6 percent, with oranges and other Florida citrus walloped by disease going up 22.5 percent compared to May 2013. Egg prices are up 10.1 percent since this time last year.

National Geographic spoke to USDA economist Annemarie Kuhns about the latest numbers.

Can you put these numbers in perspective?

Food price inflation for grocery prices was lower than average in 2013, increasing 0.9 percent. Overall, food price [inflation is] expected to return to levels that are closer to the historical norm [2.8 percent on average since 1990] in 2014.

Which prices will rise most?

Consumers will likely see higher pork prices, which increased 3.2 percent for two months in a row [12.2 percent since a year ago]. One of the reasons is porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which has increased the number of piglets that die.

Both potatoes and lettuce had the highest rates of inflation, which contributed to the overall category of fresh vegetables going up in May. [Up to] 85 percent of the lettuce grown in the U.S. comes from California, which is suffering from ongoing drought conditions. We also saw a slight increase in exports and a slight decrease in imports last month, so there's a smaller supply of lettuce.

Fruit was really led by citrus [up 7.3 percent since May 2013] in Florida. That's because of the cold winter in Florida and the widespread citrus greening, a disease on the trees that causes [oranges] to fall off the tree earlier.

Dairy prices are increasing [up to 4 percent in 2014] due to really strong domestic demand for milk and cheese. There also was a cold winter in the Midwest, which harmed the hay production, lowering output per cow.

Volunteers walk by boxes of tomatoes and watermelons at the SF-Marin Food Bank on May 1, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Volunteers walk by boxes of tomatoes and watermelons at a San Francisco food bank in May 2014. Food banks nationwide are bracing for higher food costs and increased demand.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JUSTIN SULLIVAN, GETTY IMAGES

Is the current drought in the West to blame for higher prices?

It's too soon to tell. Some of the crop hasn't come to market yet. We just don't know how long the drought will last and how bad it will be and its effect on retail food prices. But we will be watching fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and dairy that have large markets in California.

Now we've had drought in Oklahoma and Texas, so ranchers are being very cautious about expanding their herd size and we have been seeing higher beef prices.

The drought of 2012 impacted a lot of the feed crops, and as feed prices got higher, ranchers contracted their herd sizes. We're currently seeing herd sizes in the United States the same size as they were in 1951. That's a major decrease in supply when you factor in greater population as well as the higher foreign and domestic demand for beef.

What will consumers notice most at the grocery store?

The big takeaway is that at the periphery of the grocery store, the prices will be increasing at higher rates than your center aisle. So all your perishable foods—dairy, meats, fruits, and vegetables—will see higher-than-average food price inflation, whereas packaged food like sugars, cereals, candies, cookies, non-alcoholic beverages will be slightly below average.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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11 comments
Caleb Steindel
Caleb Steindel

We're going to have to use Africa's untouched farmland and also our technology more efficiently if we want to feed 9 billion in 35 years.

Thales Vinicius Lima Xavier
Thales Vinicius Lima Xavier

I believe that this issue can be mitigated and even resolved through simple and sustainable farming, taking advantage of every available space and resources while retaining the environmental balance, I'm talking about community initiatives and reuse of water resources, but this only good thing is when everyone is involved in the cause, this applies to any community anywhere in the world right now


Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Well put Nadine. We live in Michigan and have planted a garden for the last 23 years. It started out with a small plot and grew as we did. This year it is about 100 feet long by about 70 feet wide. We have 7 different varieties of Tomatoes and 10 different Peppers with only 1 variety being hot peppers. There are 31 Tomato plants and 30 pepper plants. We also have onions, Dill Weed, Cucumbers, Zucchini, Yellow Summer Squash, and 7 varieties of Winter Squash including Hubbard Squash, My favorite Squash. We have 3 varieties of green beans with one variety that grows Purple when raw and turns Green when cooked. And we have sweet corn and pumpkins. There are a few other items but this helps trim our food budget HUGELY!! And we grow giant pumpkins for the fun of it. So far our biggest was 473 pounds and 11.5 feet around. Lots of fun!

Yes it takes some work to make it happen, But it's a labor of Love.

If everyone just had a couple of plants it would make a big difference and wouldn't be any work at all, So give it a try. You might just get a new hobby and eat better than you ever have!!!

nadine Sellers
nadine Sellers

Again, grow your own; plant a tomato on your balcony, mow your lawn for the glorious last time, build raised beds to watch your food budget take on personal proportions--it only takes 2 4'x8' beds to grow enough vegetables in 2 or 3 shifts to feed a family of 2 0r 3 people..add a couple of apple trees some grapes a pear, a plum and you can can the surplus for winter..

Does this sound like work? no-no, it is a home gym, a relaxation station, a family social project..and a place to plant worries and recycle stress into pride..the well fed body is a happy person.

j h
j h

Planting more home gardens, freezing, canning, and changing diets to live off of what is in season rather than buying things as you 'want them' is a good place to start to try and cut your grocery bill.  If you live in a place that you are able to plant and keep things alive without raising your water bill to high to off set the savings, that is. 

Bulk buying from local ranchers and local meat lockers is great too, but most people dont have the freezer space to do such things, nor the initial investment of buying locally and in bulk.  Maybe try to get in with a handful of friends and family to split a hog or cow.  You could see your steaks and ground beef costing you less than $3/pound, even lower for pork.

 

jim miller
jim miller

The picture above of the irrigation ditch with little water remaining in it is actually being filled with water. Once again, very misleading information. 

Wonder Mike
Wonder Mike

fresh healthy food is for the rich only, malnutrition, obeseity and diabetes for everyone else.

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