The 4% Problem

August 5, 2012

A couple of weeks back the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced their projections of the impact that the summer of heat and drought would have on food prices. After a bit of humming and hawing, noting how variable the impact would be from one side of the grocery store to the other, the USDA got down to it, predicting a 4% rise in the cost of food that would kick in during the winter of 2013. The reason for the delay is just a function of how the food system works, and getting down to that means diving right into all the humming and hawing. As a for instance, Thornapple CSA members are suffering right at this very moment owing to the fact that stuff which should have been ready to pick last week just never showed up. But people who are shopping at supermarkets are not really feeling things quite yet. That will happen a little bit as the produce section gets hit by shortages, but it will be more profound when the shortages in corn and soybeans (mostly fed to livestock in the U.S.) get reflected. Livestock producers are making choices right now: Do I go out and buy some expensive feed that’s in short supply, or do I cut my losses and send these animals to slaughter early? Either way, the price of meat is affected.

But enough on the agricultural economics of grocery prices. The obvious ethics point (always going for the obvious in the Thornapple blog) is that this 4% rise in food prices has been projected at a time when people are already coping with the systematic effects of a lifeless economy. People in general are feeling broke. They’re finding it tough to get enough work, and the work they are getting doesn’t pay well. They’re pinching their pennies. But they have to eat, so when grocery prices go up, they are just plain screwed. They have to suck it up and find someplace else to pinch their pennies.

But of course, this picture pretty drastically understates the reality that is being lived by some people. Some people are already at or beyond the edge, and they have been missing meals for some time now. The budget runs short, and then you either seek the charity of others or you just endure the hunger. Here I’ll provide a link to an even more relentlessly serious entry in the Thornapple blog from the summer of 2010, a summer when the economy was just as bad but when the crops were doing pretty good. Families get hungry and hunger is morally compelling.

So back in 2010 I was suggesting that it might be a good time to contemplate doing something to help folks out. In fact, it’s always a good time to do that, and it behooves anyone who blogs on food issues to get around to mentioning it every now and then. If the USDA is right, doing something right now is fine, but put a note on your calendar to think about doing something next February when these higher food prices are starting to kick in with a vengeance. It’s hard to say what 4% is going to do to those folk standing out there holding hand-lettered signs and caging for their next meal. It’s not hard to say what it will do to the food pantries and soup kitchens that are out there trying to help them out: If food is in short supply, they’re going to get fewer donations; their budgets are going to be stretched as surely as the household budgets of families pinching pennies and giving up a weekend movie in order to eat hamburger. In short, this is the kind of ethical issue that you really didn’t need a philosopher to tell you about.

There is, however, a sense in which farmers need to be getting more for what they do, and that, too, would mean an increase in food prices. This source of both irony and tragedy does require a bit of the old philosophical puha to appreciate. Coping with it may be the fundamental problem in food ethics.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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