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Climate Change and Food Prices

Fri, September 19, 2014

The effect of climate change can seem amorphous—until it hits you where it hurts: your wallet.


That certainly has been the case in 2014: According to an Arizona State University study, the drought in California is pushing prices higher on a range of fruits and vegetables, from avocados (likely to go up between 17 cents and 35 cents to as much as $1.60 each) to tomatoes (likely to jump 22 cents to 45 cents to a possible $2.84 per pound.) The cost of meat and dairy is also set to jump, in part because of weather shifts. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, beef and veal prices will rise 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent this year and the price of chicken and dairy will see a rise 3 percent to 4 percent.

Restaurants and foodservice operators already are feeling the pinch. For example, In-N-Out raised the cost of its hamburgers and cheeseburgers by a dime. Chipotle has been phasing in higher prices across the board. With cattle herds at their lowest levels in half a century, beef prices have soared the fastest, about 10 percent according to an analysis by RBC Capital, but chicken prices also are up 4 percent.

Experts fear conditions will only worsen. In their most recent report, scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that there was clear evidence to say that climate change is affecting food production. The growth of crop yields is slowing, which is worrying given the demands of a growing population. (Wheat will likely be the first to be affected; it is sensitive to heat and grown around the globe.) In May, Oxfam concluded that commodities including corn and rice could see prices double by 2030, with half of the increase due to climate change.

Many things must be done to meet global targets for greenhouse-gas reductions. The foodservice industry, for example, is the number-one user of energy per-square foot; strategic thinking about energy use and food waste in commercial kitchens is a step in the right direction: According to the National Restaurant Association a majority of operators invested in energy-saving light fixtures in 2012, and between 52 percent and 75 percent plan to do so in 2013. Also in 2013, about half of operators expect to invest in energy-efficient refrigeration, air conditioning or heating systems.

But the biggest contribution the foodservice industry can make is to help reduce meat consumption. (In 2013, beef consumption did fall slightly, but the drops were far short of the 25-percent drop that some analysts say is necessary to meet 2020 targets.) One way to do this is to increase flexitarian offerings and vegetable tasting menus—a move that also advances health and wellness objectives while containing food costs. Another, perhaps more effective way, is to reduce portion sizes of meat and other proteins on the plate. As Chef Adam Busby, instructor at The Culinary Institute of America, demonstrated at the June Menus of Change conference in Boston, this does not mean that diners will feel like they are being asked to sacrifice. In a session entitled “Flavors of Next-Generation Menu R & D,” Busby made three delicious dishes, one of which was completely meat-free. His recipes are available here. All of the recipes presented at Menus of Change are published in the Menus of Change 2014 Complete Course Guide, posted in the sidebar on this page. Recipes begin on page 74 of the course guide.


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