It’s not good to be hungry in the United States … especially now
This is not a good time to be hungry in the United States. In the past year, the price of coffee, milk, dairy products in general, wheat, rice, produce and beef have all gone up for a variety of reasons.The cost of delivering those products to your table has increased, fueled by the rise in oil prices and labor disputes. While government policy in this country has helped keep prices artificially low, the time has arrived when food prices have not only started to rise, but will keep rising.Farming and ranching are two professions that are grossly underrated for their difficulty. The stereotypical farmer is a straw-chewing hayseed, but in this decade farmers have to be conversant in international economics, government agriculture policy and stress management.As well, they have to be skilled meteorologists, mechanics and real estate experts just to make a buck. The price of a bushel of hard red spring wheat, for example, about $3 in the 1960s, was still right around $3 some 40 years later. The government has kept the price down by paying farmers to grow crops besides wheat, or paying them not to grow anything at all.
Elsewhere in the world, countries from Canada to Brazil to Argentina are producing as much wheat as the U.S., helping to keep the price down.Prices are beginning to rise, however, partly because of the weather. In North Dakota, for example, one of the largest wheat-producing states, wheat crops of just two years ago were hurt badly by drought, but this year, those same fields have been flooded out by heavy, unseasonal rains that have kept many farmers from planting anything at all.If you don’t believe in global warming then there are a lot of meteorologists who’d like to hear your explanation for what’s happening worldwide.The same generally higher temperatures recorded across the planet, while good to your heating bill, are lousy for the production of grass crops such as wheat and corn. Higher temperatures contribute to the screwy weather patterns that result in one hurricane after another crashing into Florida and wrecking the citrus crops, and the heavy rains that have washed out coffee crops in Venezuela and Brazil.
Higher temperatures are bad for animals, too, and have contributed to the drought conditions that have caused dairy farmers to thin their herds and help drive up the price of milk.Latte lovers have been dealt a double shot of higher milk and higher coffee prices, but unlike past years, when prices rose and prices later fell, plan on the prices remaining high.That’s because the demand for food, especially in Asia, is growing. Nowhere in the world do people eat like Americans (thank goodness), where childhood obesity is officially on an epidemic scale along with AIDS and heart disease. If the rest of the world did eat like America, the price of wheat would resemble the price of gold. As the economy of China’s 1.3 billion people grows, their diets have grown and the amount of food that they eat and waste has grown. And while demand is growing, the weather is putting unpredictable limits on supply, so the price of food, like the price of oil, will continue to generally creep upward.
And the weak dollar (did I mention international economics) makes food imports like Brazilian coffee and Australian milk more expensive, making it likely that Starbucks will raise prices across the board yet again in 2005.The good news is that the cost of eating is unlikely to grow like the cost of health care, which averages an unbelievable 7-10 percent each year, and the American diet is still so limited that a single diet plan like the Atkins diet, can move the prices of beef and wheat.But while a majority of Americans will just pay the price, for many, the steady growth in food prices represents a crushing burden. One million more Americans fell below the poverty line last year, and the cost of a gallon of milk is of daily concern not just in Appalachia but in Summit County. That’s why those food drive boxes outside the grocery store which used to appear only at holidays, are a regular fixture and shopping for them should be a regular part of your shopping list from now on.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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