The food price spikes demonstrate how extreme weather, much of it caused by the climate crisis, is having a real-world impact on Americans. And climate scientists warn the fallout will only intensify from here.
“Climate change is coming right into our dining room tables,” Cynthia Rosenzweig, adjunct senior research scientist at the Columbia University Earth Institute, told CNN Business.
‘Bid to the moon’
World food prices have soared by 31% over the past year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Supply shortages caused by extreme weather is one of several factors behind this food inflation.
“There’s no doubt that changes in weather patterns are impacting our food supply,” said Jennifer Bartashus, a senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence who covers retail staples and packaged food.
Robert Yawger, a 35-year veteran of the commodities industry, is no stranger to price booms in agriculture. But unlike prior booms, this one isn’t being driven by typical factors like emerging market demand or a weak US dollar.
“In the past, it wasn’t that there was a climate catastrophe rallying everything at once,” said Yawger, executive director of energy futures at Mizuho Securities. “I’ve never seen anything like this — where everything is bid to the moon at the same time.”
Severe weather events have contributed to natural catastrophe losses of $40 billion during the first half of 2021 alone, according to Swiss Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company. That’s the second-highest amount on record.
Of course, not all extreme weather is caused by the climate crisis.
Worker shortages, rising transportation costs
And the rise in food prices can be driven by multiple factors — some of which have nothing to do with climate change.
“I’ve been in the industry for 38 years and this is the highest we’ve ever seen inflation go up in our company,” said Orlando Olave, senior director of operations at New York supermarket Morton Williams. “It’s incredible how many things are going up now.”
93% of wheat in poor condition in Washington State
“It’s been cooked. Day in and day out they’re getting temperatures they’ve never seen before,” Yawger said.
‘Complete crop failure’
More than 95% of the Western part of the United States is currently in some level of drought.
“Droughts have caused some farmers to stop growing some crops altogether — complete crop failure,” said Rosenzweig.
Chris Field, a professor who studies climate change at Stanford University, worries about how droughts and water constraints in California and the West will impact America’s supply of nuts, fruits and vegetables.
“So far, we have not seen widespread food price increases for American consumers,” Field wrote in an email. “But, as extremes become more common, the risk becomes more and more real.”
Coffee and sugar prices on the rise
But it’s not just warm conditions impacting food supply.
Unfortunately, these climate-driven crop problems are only going to add to the sticker shock gripping America.
“If demand remains the same, or even grows as restaurants open, but supply is constrained, that will naturally translate to higher prices that are paid ultimately by the consumer,” said Bartashus, the Bloomberg Intelligence analyst.
Although coffee prices have since retreated, the frost in Brazil threatens to reverse that. The impact to consumers may not be immediate because of the way major companies buy coffee beans (and other commodities).
There’s little doubt, at least in Yawger’s mind, that climate change is to blame for the simultaneous impact to various crops.
“The chance all of these pieces would move in an anti-harvest way would be one in a million,” he said. “The evidence is overwhelming that it is a change in weather.”