Food Costs Rising Fast in America

The price of food is steadily increasing: Here's why, and what (if anything) we can do about it

As grocery store prices soar, eating well becomes an even bigger problem for Americans.

The average American diet is a one-way ticket to obesity (excluding those with manic metabolisms that are the envy of us all). Yet our country is making a conscious effort to change its culinary customs, with campaigns like Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban and Michelle Obama’s low-calorie school lunches. But the truth is, quality food comes at a price, and that price is rising.

It’s certainly no secret that throughout the last few months we’ve watched our grocery receipts soar, with the price of everything from produce to protein on the rise. The United States Department of Agriculture announced in August that food costs as a whole will climb 2.5 to 3.5 percent by the end of 2012.

There are multiple contributing factors, but the dominating cause is the drought that deteriorated summer crops, now dubbed the Great Drought of 2012. By the end of July, about 62 percent of the nation suffered from the lack of rain, making this the worst drought in half a century. The USDA declared natural disasters in more than 1,800 counties and 35 states — more than half the country.

Effects of the drought are widespread. Photo by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

The drought even extends beyond America. Summer heat waves in Southern Europe were crisping crops from Italy to Ukraine. There is currently a monsoon failure in in India, accounting for the country’s first drought in three years. And as droughts in America and Europe elicit higher food prices, droughts in China and North Korea elicit more food shortages as populations rise.


The lack of water is the obvious issue here, but habitual summer heat waves didn’t help. Only from 68 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit is photosynthesis constant (humor this return to high school biology, OK?), but above 104 degrees photosynthesis ceases completely. During such high heat, plants are in thermal shock, pausing pollination.

The corn crop is especially sensitive to high heat. The tassel at the top of a stalk pollinates the silk of each shoot. In such high heat, the corn silk dries and browns, leaving the pollen with no opportunity to reach the kernel.

The U.S. is one of the largest producers of corn, and farmers planted more corn this year than any other since 1937. However, approximately 51 percent of the American corn crop is in poor or very poor condition. In August, the USDA projected the corn yield at a record 376 million tons. Just one month later, the dismal drought conditions necessitated a revised figure, reducing the yield by 47 million tons.