Here’s Why You May Pay Lots More for Groceries This Summer

Ready to pay $3.50 for berries? Climate change may force you to.

(Photo: Steve Outram/Getty Images)

Apr 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

California’s serious and prolonged drought is about to hurt grocery budgets across the country, particularly when it comes to the fruits and vegetables we rely on for good nutrition.

The fertile lands of the Golden State grow up to half of all the produce Americans depend on, so the three-year-long drought’s effects could be far-reaching for families, who may have to change the way they shop.

The price for one of those clamshell containers of a pint of berries could rise to as much as $3.46, said Timothy Richards, an agribusiness professor at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, who has been studying the impact of drought on California’s farmland. A head of crispy lettuce could cost 62 cents more than it does now before summer is out, and grape prices could climb 50 cents a pound.

Avocados, berries, broccoli, grapes, lettuce, melons, peppers, and tomatoes are expected to experience the biggest price increases, in part because those crops require the most water to produce. Richards said they’re the most vulnerable to crop failure, and that some farmers may choose not to grow them—which means supply will be reduced.

He said 10 to 20 percent of certain crops could be lost because of California’s lingering drought, based on his research, which relies on retail sales data from the Nielsen Perishables Group. Federal officials report retail food prices in February and March climbed 4 percent each month, the largest monthly gains in food prices since September 2011.

When we expand the picture of the climate’s effects on current crops to predict global harvests, the news is just as grim. Dire warnings were issued about climate change’s negative impact on food production, including global decreases in crop yield, in a recent report issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The global body has been voicing the concern since 2008.

Painful price increases aren’t limited to your salad bowl.

Years of drought and price increases for feed have meant American ranchers have had a hard time. Prices for meat and dairy products are on a steady rise too, according to recently released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The price of ground beef hit an all-time high earlier this month; it costs 35 percent more than it did just four years ago. Hamburger lovers aren’t the only ones hurting. Soaring beef prices forced Chipotle to announce it would be charging as much as 6 percent more for that yummy beef burrito. Savvy consumers have steered clear of beef, turning to poultry for cheaper protein, but that, in part, has driven up prices for chicken more than 20 percent from what they were four years ago. Turkey prices are up too.

Then there are all the price hikes that aren’t caused by California’s drought but are seemingly as intractable.

The biggest victim may be the most important meal of the day: breakfast.

Our nation’s orange juice supply is in trouble, with citrus greening disease, spread by the invasive Asian citrus psyllid, leading to a jump in the prices of Florida’s oranges and grapefruits.

The price of sliced bacon jumped 13 percent from last year and climbed 53 percent in the last four, according to a retail price analysis of data from 2010 to 2014. Contributing to the bump in bacon prices is the deadly porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that has swept through 28 states, killing thousands of baby piglets and reducing the nation’s pig population by 10 percent.

Brace yourself: Prices for milk and coffee are up too.

When prices for local food go up, grocery stores start looking for ways to keep the produce shelves full of fresh food. But finding a substitute for avocado may prove tricky for shoppers, especially those who want to at least buy American if the product isn’t locally grown.

“Because prices are going to go up so much, retailers will start looking elsewhere for produce. This means we’ll see a lot more imports from places like Chile and Mexico,” said Richards.

The good news? For green thumbs with even a tiny patch of dirt, a packet of Brandywine tomato seeds from the fine folks over at High Mowing Organic Seeds will only set you back $2.75. If you’re lucky enough to live in Durham, N.C., you can “check out” a packet of seeds for free.