Why California's Drought Impacts Every American Who Buys Food

By Terrell Johnson
Published: March 19, 2014

Prices for meat, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables and a wide range of other foods shot up last month, the federal government reported Tuesday, thanks largely to the searing drought that has gripped the western United States for months on end.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said food prices rose 0.4 percent between January and February in a report released Tuesday, which follows an earlier report by the Department of Agriculture that said food prices are expected to rise 2.5 to 3.5 percent this year over 2013 levels.

That marks the biggest month-over-month rise in food prices since September 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported, for everything from meat and poultry to dairy and eggs.

Meat and dairy prices posted some of the biggest rises in the survey, thanks to severe droughts in states like California and Texas.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As the California drought continues and farmers struggle to water their crops, a sign is posted near an almond farm Feb. 25 in Turlock, Calif.

Meanwhile, drought in Brazil – some regions of the world's biggest coffee producer have seen only one-tenth their normal rainfall so far this year – has sent prices for coffee, sugar and soybeans rising higher also.

Drought casts a long shadow

What this shows is that droughts – which receive much less attention than severe weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes – often have a much longer-lasting impact than their more dramatic counterparts, noted Paul Walsh, vice president for weather analytics at The Weather Company, the parent of The Weather Channel and

"The drought-related rise in commodity prices is an example of the pervasive impact of weather and climate on our lives and, in turn, the economy," said Walsh, pointing out that the 2012 drought cost the U.S. economy some $30 billion, second only to Hurricane Sandy in terms of its financial impact among weather disasters.

"Increased prices could have a profound long-term effect on the U.S. economy," he added, adding a note of caution on over-interpreting some of the price increases quoted in the media in the wake of Tuesday's BLS report.

These often refer to prices on commodities futures markets and don't directly reflect the prices consumers see in the checkout line at the supermarket, Walsh said. "For example, coffee futures are up some 70 percent – but this doesn't mean the cost of a cup of Starbucks will go up that high."

The final prices on the foods we find at the grocery store and in restaurants will be determined by individual companies, he explained, and will be a function of the profit margin each is attempting to capture as well as its own individual approach to the market.

'It's all about climate and location'

For some crops, the impact of the drought is still in its early stages. If the lack of precipitation continues in California, farms in the state's Oxnard growing region may not be able to plant in the fall and winter, the time of the year when most strawberries are planted, AgAlert reports.

"If the water situation continues to be this severe, there may not be as many of those acres replanted for fall production," Cindy Jewell, marketing director for California Giant Berry Farms, said in an interview with AgAlert.

California supplies nearly 90 percent of the nation's strawberries, she added, which means that next year's harvest could feel a big impact.

"It's not like someone else could step in and do that," she told AgAlert. "It's all about climate and location."



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