Food prices have risen precipitously over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the reasons are complex and extend beyond the public health crisis caused by the virus. The global supply chain has experienced unprecedented chokepoints and delays, causing problems that have rippled into nearly every corner of our lives, including the food on our tables.
As the world looks aghast at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, indications are that this conflict will contribute even more instability and strain on countries and regions that depend on Ukraine’s role as an exporter of corn and wheat. We asked SIS professor Johanna Mendelson Forman, an expert on food in conflict zones and gastrodiplomacy, to help us understand the myriad and complicated causes of the current high cost of food, as well as the impacts on people globally.
- What are the causes of the stark food price inflation indicated in the recent Food Index released by the United Nations?
- Today, we are experiencing the effects of a global recession that began in 2020 arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to counter it. The global economy shrank as more people lost their jobs. Supply chains were impacted by shortages of workers and of the infrastructure needed to move food from ports to plates. The result was a dramatic rise in the cost of food in the United States and worldwide. Food inflation, a modest 2.2 percent a year last May, started 2022 at a seven percent gallop—the eighth month in a row the rate has gone up. The Consumer Price Index report pegged the US inflation rate at 7.5 percent over the past 12 months, the highest rate in 40 years.
- By the end of 2021, Americans were paying an average of 12 percent of their income on food; for lower income wage earners, it was closer to 36 percent. High food prices reflect the increased costs of inputs to agriculture, e.g., fertilizer, labor shortages, and infrastructure problems, such as shortages of shipping containers and truck drivers to bring foods from processing centers to market. For example, in the United States, cattle and pig slaughter fell by about 40 percent in April compared to the same period in 2019 (OECD Food Supply Chains and COVID-19).
- Is the COVID-19 pandemic the only cause, or does this trend predate the pandemic?
- According to the FAO/UNICEF report, the State of Food Insecurity (SOFI 2021), food price hikes were already in play, a symptom of how much damage climate change has had on our food systems. COVID-19 exacerbated the problem by shrinking the economy as people stopped working and consumption dropped.
- Is any area of the world immune from these impacts?
- No. Our food is highly dependent on a global supply chain. A drought in Mexico or Brazil will impact the price of food in the United States, Europe, or Asia. While sustainability experts are seeking greater reliance on local food production, we are not yet at a stage of reforming the global food system that makes buying local a regular source of all supplies.
- How does the increased cost of commodity crops like soybeans, wheat, and corn impact the price of food that an individual pays at the grocery store?
- Our Western diet comes with a steep price tag. Meat and dairy production are the culprits. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Most people don’t realize that most of the 80 percent of soybeans produced are used to feed animals, not humans. Corn is also diverted to make biofuel like ethanol. When you walk down the aisle of any supermarket and reach the meat and poultry section, what you see is the end of a supply chain that has consumed millions of tons of commodities, millions of gallons of gasoline to get the food to the store, petrochemicals to package it, and laborers who are needed to produce the end result. It is no wonder that in this time when people were afflicted with COVID-19, prices were going to rise to reflect production costs.
- How much do food prices matter in the context of food security for individuals and families?
- Food prices are part of the food security equation. Access to food means more than just having enough food to feed a family, but also resources to purchase that food. There is more than enough food available to provide for every person on the planet. Income inequality, coupled with the devastating impact that COVID-19 had on economies around the world, prevented people from being able to purchase the food that they need. In the US, while the share of food-insecure households did not rise in 2020, the share of adults living in them did—from 9.8 percent to 10.5 percent. The share of children living in a food-insecure household rose even more, from 14.6 percent to 16.1 percent. However, according to the USDA, the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic on food security stayed behind those of the economic depression between 2008 and 2011.
- How does this impact differ for people in different parts of the world, and will we see more food insecurity and starvation as a result?
- Since 2015, the world has experienced an uptick in hunger precisely because the 14‑16 frozen conflicts have produced 60 percent of the hungriest people on this planet. According to the 2021 Global Report on Food Crises, “at least 155 million people in 55 countries were in crisis in 2020, an increase of around 20 million people from 2019.” Africa remained disproportionately affected. From the same report: “Conflict pushed almost 100 million people into acute food insecurity, followed by economic shocks (40 million) and weather extremes (16 million).” The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2, Ending Hunger by 2030, is no longer possible, due to the trifecta of conflict, COVID-19, and climate change. We will continue to see people remain hungry as long as the pandemic continues to spread in the developing world, especially since the ability to access nutritious food will remain a challenge as poverty rises.
- Will prices go down when the pandemic is over or becomes endemic, or will climate change ensure that food prices stay high?
- As the world recovers from a pandemic, there will be some relief in prices as the labor force rebuilds and as food transportation infrastructure is able to process incoming supplies. We will still be threatened by climate change events that will impact agricultural production. Producers are looking for more locally based farming solutions, including urban agriculture, to avoid congested supply chains and long-distance transportation. But these changes will take some time to put in place. We will continue to pay a higher price for our foods as energy prices continue to rise with a war unfolding in Eastern Europe. In the Western Hemisphere, water and growing seasons will require larger investments in technology to ensure that farming can proceed. What is promising is that there are many potential remedies for reducing the impact of climate-related challenges in the food sector. It will take a large-scale reform of the way we grow our food. As individuals, it is what we plan to put on our plate that will ultimately create a more sustainable food system. We all have a stake in our food future.