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The flap about food

Agriculture.com Staff 09/14/2008 @ 3:00pm

Americans have been lulled into complacency by affordable and abundant food supplies. Over the past 15 years, all U.S. food prices rose on average 2.5% annually. Now USDA forecasts retail prices will rise 4.5% to 5.5% in 2008, on top of 2007's 4% jump. We'll see the impact on meat prices soon.

Higher commodity prices and biofuel production are blamed. Earlier this year, ag groups asked Congress to investigate other factors: transportation, the declining value of the dollar, rising demand from developing countries, weak oversight by the Commodity Future's Trading Commission, and weather.

After all, farmers still only receive 20¢ of each consumer food dollar. Corn prices are only 4% of the increase in food prices. The farm value for beef is the highest, at 47%, followed by other meats.

The last time I recall a big consumer food flap was the 1973 meat boycott. Housewives protested rising meat prices, and their weeklong boycott resulted in price ceilings. Eighteen months later, when farmers couldn't profitably feed animals, prices rose to an all-time high.

In 1976 when I was writing for Farm Wife News magazine, Marlo Thomas featured Barbara Shuttleworth in McCall's Pattern leaflet, distributed by fabric shops. Her name may not ring a bell, but her claim to fame was leading the 1973 meat boycott.

This did not impress farm women, especially Laura Bean of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. She urged readers to write McCall's to express their dismay, and she announced her own boycott of McCall's.

In 1973, farm commodities' share of food product prices was 37%; today it's about 19%. Americans spend on average 10% of income on food. It's a bigger bite for lower incomes.

Trend watchers at the Institute for Alternative Futures predict sharply higher food prices over the next 30 years, with meat leading the way.

That's not surprising. Our food system is based on moving food cheaply around the globe. Agriculture is driven by cheap oil. Studies show that energy costs have twice the impact on retail food prices as the price of corn.

Today you can buy groceries from Amazon.com, with free ground shipping for members in two days. Convenient, yes. Sensible, hardly.

Much better to promote Buy Fresh, Buy Local options. In low-income, urban areas, community gardening programs merit expansion. In a sign of the times, Wal-Mart recently announced plans to expand purchases of local foods to save on diesel.

Will consumers boycott meat? The best defense is a good offense. The End of Food by Paul Roberts takes a critical look at how less water, land, and energy, and more global warming may shift our industry.

Americans have been lulled into complacency by affordable and abundant food supplies. Over the past 15 years, all U.S. food prices rose on average 2.5% annually. Now USDA forecasts retail prices will rise 4.5% to 5.5% in 2008, on top of 2007's 4% jump. We'll see the impact on meat prices soon.

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