It’s the time of year when many are thinking about food. A lot of food. Thinking a lot about a lot of food.
In 2022, Americans spent an additional $2.8 billion on food for Thanksgiving compared to a typical week. Supply chain disruptions and inflation pushed the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner to record highs, according to a survey from the American Farm Bureau Federation. The survey finds costs are down this year but still higher than they were prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those higher prices are due in part to disruptions in the global food supply, and while overall global production is up, zooming into different countries and regions reveals many people are having a harder time securing their next meal. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, a major corn and wheat exporter, is continuing to send shocks into grain markets. Inflation remains high in many countries, further threatening food security.
This year added another spicy ingredient: Some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth. Extreme heat in 2023 diminished wheat yields in India, while drought took a bite out of rice in Indonesia. Disasters worsened by rising average temperatures also took a toll. Cyclone Freddy tore up fields of corn, rice, and beans across Malawi in March, the brunt borne by small subsistence farms. Severe weather also took a toll on livestock. Heat and drought stressed cattle herds across the US, Heads of cattle were already at their smallest numbers since records began in 1971. It’s even making cows produce less milk.
Still, there’s a lot to be grateful for at the dinner table this year: Farmers have continued to push up crop yields to feed the growing, hungry planet. Technologies like mechanization, improved breeding, genetic engineering, and fertilizer have helped farmers reap more from the land. This year, global grain production is projected to reach an all-time high. In countries like the US, farmers planted more acres of crops like soy, corn, and wheat to take advantage of higher prices. The US is now reaping a record corn harvest.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean big gains for the sowers and reapers. “The percent of a food dollar that goes to the farmer is really small,” said Anne Schechinger, Midwest director for the Environmental Working Group and an agriculture researcher. In 2022, it was less than 15 cents per dollar for US farmers, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
In addition, because there was such a bumper crop of corn and soy, the amount that US farmers are projected to make per bushel is poised to fall. So 2023 has created a situation where consumers are paying more for food but some farmers will get paid less.
Add to that the fact that farms often operate on narrow margins and smaller operations are particularly precarious. More than 90 percent of farms in the US are considered “small,” meaning a farming income of $250,000 or less per year, according to the USDA.
The US government created a crop insurance program in the 1930s to help farmers hedge against forces of nature. The program is government subsidized but run by private companies. Farmers pay a premium and receive a payment if their yields or their revenues fall below a given threshold. The program insures 82 percent of eligible acres. But because a handful of farms hold the biggest tracts, only 20 percent of the total number of farms are covered.
More than 73 percent of federal crop insurance payouts are due to weather: heat, drought, excess moisture, hail, and frost. “Last year had the highest crop insurance payments in the history of the program,” Schechinger said. Payouts totaled $19.13 billion, up from $2.96 billion in 2001, according to the Environmental Working Group. In addition, the USDA is providing more than $3 billion in disaster relief to farmers.
It will take a few more months to tally the insurance payouts this year, but 2023’s raucous weather is already raising the price of what’s on the plate. Here is a sampler platter of the foods scorched, drenched, or dried out from the weather this year, raising prices for stalwart staples and delectable delicacies alike.
It may be good for your heart, but olive oil’s soaring price this year may give you palpitations. Searing heat and scant rain across the Mediterranean, from Spain to Morocco to Greece to Italy, damaged olives this year, making olive oil more valuable than crude oil. Global olive oil production is projected to fall by half this year.
If you had blueberry pie on the menu, you may have had some sticker shock at the grocery store, if you could find them at all. Peru is the world’s largest exporter of blueberries, and it’s right in the crosshairs of El Niño, the warm phase of the Pacific Ocean’s temperature cycle. It fueled record-breaking heat across Peru, even during its winter. Blueberries need cool weather, and now half as many blueberries from Peru are making it to US shelves. Prices have gone up 40 percent since July.
Grapes are notoriously fussy about the weather, and their terroir shapes the quality and quantity of their products, like wine, so 2023 probably won’t make for a great vintage. The extremes in 2023 have driven global wine production to its lowest levels in 60 years. “Once again, extreme climatic conditions such as early frost, heavy rainfall, and drought have significantly impacted the output of the world vineyard,” according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine.
US farmers are harvesting a record amount of corn, a.k.a. maize, but they faced tough conditions. Upward of 70 percent of corn-growing regions were in drought by June. “For the remainder of the summer, roughly 40 to 60% of the corn production area was considered to be in drought,” a USDA spokesperson wrote in an email.
Other regions did see declines. In China, intense heat in some regions and torrential downpours in others reduced the overall harvest. The majority of the corn in the world is field corn, a.k.a. dent corn, which is not for direct human consumption like the sweet corn used in elote or cornbread. Rather, it’s grown as animal feed, as well as the raw material for biofuels, sweeteners, starches, and industrial uses.
Nearly two-thirds of soy-growing regions were in drought in the US by June. While some rain did eventually fall, the area in drought “never fell below 38% for the remainder of the summer,” according to the USDA. Soy crops also faced hail damage in parts of the country. The agency anticipates the harvest will be down 3 percent compared to 2022.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, the world’s largest soy producer, drought forced farmers to delay or replant their crop, eating into the harvest. As with corn, the majority of soy is grown as animal feed, so losses show up on dinner plates as more expensive steaks, eggs, chicken, and cheese.
More than 20 percent of humanity’s calories come from rice. It takes 200 liters of water to grow a kilogram of corn, but it takes more than 2,000 liters to grow a kilogram of rice. So hot, dry weather has an outsized effect on rice production, and this year’s extremes are raising prices of dishes ranging from risotto to khao pad. China, however, faced the opposite problem, with heavy rains and flooding damaging its rice paddies. Rice prices in Asia have surged to the highest levels in 15 years.
Cattle eat many of the grains we grow, so higher corn and soy prices from extreme weather increase the cost of cattle products, including milk and beef. Per cow, milk production fell by nine pounds this year compared to 2022 due in part to the hot, muggy weather. But hot cows aren’t happy cows either. They are more vulnerable to disease and produce less milk. This year, the USDA has begun to implement the Milk Loss Program to compensate dairies that had to dump milk due to extreme weather. The total cost of all this spilled milk isn’t clear yet, but dairy farmers can take a slice of $13 billion in assistance.
Under extreme heat, cattle struggle to put on weight, and the combination of high heat and humidity can turn lethal. Hundreds of cattle died this summer across Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska as they roasted in some of the hottest weather ever recorded in the region. Ongoing drought has convinced many ranchers not to expand their herds, which were already at their smallest in decades. Together, these factors are driving up beef prices. The USDA raised its payouts this year for ranchers who lost cattle due to extreme heat under its Livestock Indemnity Program.
Climate change means that averages are changing too. That has good and bad effects on our food supply.
Higher average temperatures mean that heat waves are becoming more frequent and intense, but it also means that cold snaps and freeze events — which can be damaging to crops like apricots, peaches, apples, and nectarines — are less likely. Extreme cold is also lethal to cattle. Almost 3,000 head of cattle died in Brazil this year due to cold weather.
Warmer winters have also extended the length of the growing season. In the 48 contiguous states, the growing season is now two weeks longer than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. That gives farmers more flexibility in when to plant wheat, corn, and soy and can allow them to squeeze more plantings out of a given plot of land.
Rising averages mean that minimums are climbing as well. In fact, overnight temperatures are increasing twice as fast as daytime temperatures in the US. This can further stress crops and reduce their yields. For every 1.8°F increase in nighttime minimum temperature, rice experiences a 4.6 percent drop in yield.
Carbon dioxide, the byproduct of burning fossil fuels, is also a critical nutrient for plants. As carbon dioxide concentrations in the air rise, the growth rate of crops can speed up. But that acceleration can lead crops like rice to have fewer nutrients like protein, zinc, iron, and B vitamins.
Unless we turn down the heat, climate change will continue to overcook our food supply
Most scientists now expect climate change to have a detrimental effect on food production on balance — through changing climatic averages and due to more weather extremes — though the scale of the damage will vary by crop. “Overall, the risks climate change poses to agriculture are expected to outweigh any potential benefits due to CO2 fertilization or other factors such as longer growing seasons and expanded crop ranges,” according to the Fifth National Climate Assessment released by the US government earlier this month.
There are ways to mitigate the losses. Better seasonal forecasting and planning can help farmers take precautions or decide what to plant to take advantage of expected weather. But there are limits. “To a certain extent, the growers have to plan for adverse conditions and hope for the best,” said Nicholas Bond, the Washington state climatologist and a research scientist at the University of Washington.
For instance, crops that are planted each year like grains can take advantage of more favorable growing conditions after a year of extremes. However, perennial crops that take years to grow like grapevines and apple trees can suffer lasting or permanent damage from severe heat, flooding, or drought. Farmers have to invest in protecting their crops even if they aren’t expecting much of a harvest. “You’ve got to keep the trees alive even if it feels like you’re going to lose a year’s worth of production,” Bond said. “If your trees die, you have to start over.”
And while 2023 is shaping up to be the hottest year humanity has ever witnessed, a year like this will become more common as global average temperatures continue to rise. Farmers have largely managed to maintain production for now, but extreme weather and challenging economics are making it harder to keep up. That means humanity must halt greenhouse gas emissions to stop the planet’s temperature from climbing indefinitely. We must be grateful to the people planting, picking, and transporting our food, and we can’t take this cornucopia for granted forever.