Globally, prices for food are rising, especially for staple ingredients. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization announced January 2021 that the Price Index of cereals, vegetable oils, sugar, dairy, and meat had risen to its highest level since July 2014, and continues to rise at the time of this writing (April 2021). This worldwide inflation in food prices comes at a time where millions are still out of work and emergency food providers are seeing higher demands than ever, both consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has been with us for over a year now and without a doubt, left reverberations in food and agriculture systems. Border closures, prolonged lockdowns, and closed or reduced service industries due to the pandemic have pulled apart the layers of supply chains, reducing inputs and outputs for farmers and putting many workers at risk. One complication after another has led to widespread issues and inefficiencies, boosting prices for the food we consume in and out of the home.
In the United States, food prices increased by 3.9 percent over 2020, compared to an average increase of 2.4 percent over the previous 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Inflation is at around twice the amount of the Federal Reserve’s target. These spikes in consumer good prices affect the poorest of households, where roughly one-third of the family budget goes to putting food on the table. According to Feeding America, around 13 million additional people have experienced food insecurity in 2020, due to loss of jobs.
COVID-19 is not the only predicament to blame for food inflation, however. Climate change, which has caused extreme weather events around the world, has also wreaked havoc on every facet of the food system, disrupting food security and quality at large. For example, worsening and longer wildfire seasons in the West Coast have destroyed farmland, even contributing a smoky aftertaste to some crops, making them not suitable for the market. Unhealthy air quality and excessive heat create health hazards for farmworkers, most of whom are undocumented and do not have health insurance. Drying reservoirs and prolonged droughts plummet the water supply, jeopardizing soil quality and crop health. More recently, severe snowstorms in Texas left acres of crops and livestock at peril, and blocked successful food transport, forcing millions of dollars worth of dairy and produce to be thrown away. Decreases in supply of foods from this waste means an increase in prices for us consumers, which we can expect to continue in the future beyond the pandemic.
All of these repercussions are just those in the United States – the developing nations with the highest levels of hunger are also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change on agriculture.
The past year has demonstrated how vulnerable the food system is, both globally and nationally. Changes big or small can easily trigger others, and the COVID-19 pandemic along with ongoing climate change have had immense social, economical and environmental consequences.It will become more and more crucial to focus on policy and innovation in the food and agriculture sector in order to sustainably feed our growing population.
By: Erika Pilpré