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Produce!

Food Inflation

While pundits and economists everywhere welcome in the “recovery”, a different story is brewing in the US produce sector, from the Producer Price Index (PPI) report for March 2010, it seems that the price of food rose 2.4% in March alone – the largest monthly jump in over 26 years.

Some of the startling food price increases on a year-over-year basis include, fresh and dry vegetables up 56.1%, fresh fruits and melons up 28.8%, eggs for fresh use up 33.6%, pork up 19.1%, beef and veal up 10.7% and dairy products up 9.7%. OnOctober 30th, 2009, NIA predicted that inflation would appear next in food and agriculture, but we never anticipated that it would spiral so far out of control this quickly.

Source: U.S. Food Inflation Spiraling Out of Control

Firstly, I’m waiting for someone to claim that the cost increases are due (somehow) to the local food revolution, or people growing their own food, or that massive agribusiness is somehow suffering, but for the moment, we’ll have to settle with the facts presented. In all seriousness though, with the cost of produce and oil up and increasing, inflation is set to play a big role in the economic figures for 2010…

Most financial experts in the mainstream media are proclaiming that the recession is over and inflation is not a problem in the U.S. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that rising food and gasoline prices accounted for 58% of February’s year-over-year 3.85% rise in retail sales. NIA believes price inflation is beginning to accelerate in many areas of the economy besides food and energy, and all increases in U.S. retail sales this year will be entirely due to inflation.

That bears repeating – “All increases in U.S. retail sales this year will be entirely due to inflation“.

Now that doesn’t sound like a true-blue recovery, does it?

The availability and price of food has been recognized to be related to the stability of governments and society – should we be concerned? Just a few years ago in 2007-8, we saw massive inflation in food prices that sparked a global crisis including political and economic instability in many nations. The question that remains unanswered is – were there structure conditions that caused or precipitated this event, and have they been resolved? Is this the first sign of a similar situation, or like the French Revolution, could  this price increase be exacerbated by the Icelandic Volcano and food shortages in Europe.

While real food shortages never hit home in this part of the world, the likelihood that any level of government is actually equipped to distribute some magical supply of food, in the event of real trouble, seems slim to non-existent. Poor countries have been hit the hardest with rising prices in recent years, but how will we pay for it? – if you haven’t noticed, the US and Canada are racking up monster debts to pay for almost everything.  Sure we can borrow, but that just devalues our currency against whoever is silly enough to lend it to us, essentially meaning that we have even less to pay for what we need.

Food policy over the past fifty years has been aimed at cost savings and efficiencies in production, we are starting to see a groundswell of concern over the precarious complexity of the food supply situation. It used to be that the milkman would deliver to your door, (after milking the cows that morning), you’d by meat from the butcher, who sourced meat from local suppliers, fruit and vegetable was primarily seasonal and you rarely ate produce from outside your climatic zone. Now we are so removed from the producers and real food that in many areas reversing this trend will be a difficult process.

Ultimately, it should concern all of us for the security of our food supply, and as that involves planting seeds, we should be concerned about the protection of open pollinated non-GMO seeds. Our governments are failing us on many fronts when it comes to the right to choose where your food comes from, food regulations, farming bylaws, and animal control bylaws all support the belief that big agriculture is the way we will feed the world, and that the right to grow your own food is not universal, particularly not in suburbia, where a manicured lawn is more prized than a root cellar full of food.

I imagine a time will come when the Vancouver Sun will run a front page story, “Elderly Man Dies from Hunger While Mowing Lawn” – he couldn’t afford to buy food, didn’t want to ruin his perfect lawn and died for no other reason than a defiant belief in suburbia.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.