This is the fifth in a series of columns that report on the 30th annual The Lempert Report Trend Forecast; its focus is on the most important issues the retail and food industries face. Today, it’s all about climate change.
I would be remiss, as one who lives in California, to not emphasize how climate change in the Golden State will affect food prices and supplies for every one of the grocery stores in the nation. Our crops are getting decimated. There's been at least 12 atmospheric rivers here in California, and except for strawberries (that I happen to love water) all the crops are damaged. What we are experiencing is a lot of crop land underwater. In fact it is close to a hundred thousand acres.
California is our leading provider in the United States for fruits, vegetables and those leafy greens. Leafy greens in particular are being destroyed, which are not salvageable because of food safety issues. In Salinas Valley, which is a huge agriculture area, more than 10 thousand acres have been flooded. These floods have delayed the planting of the crops and according to farmers, the delay is at least a month – many can’t even get their farm equipment on the fields. These weather conditions are wreaking havoc for farmers and agriculture.
The conversation needs to focus on water – and goes well beyond the flooding described as the opposite is also true. Water is one of our most precious resources and water use has increased with our population about 1% a year for the past 40 years. Based on the latest United Nations report, by 2050 the number of people in cities that will face water scarcity is projected to be 2.4 billion. Agriculture currently uses 70% of the world’s water supply to grow our foods. Last month the Biden administration published its environmental review of operations at the Colorado major reservoirs. This is an important report that comes on the heels of a two-decade long drought and chronic water overuse in America’s West. The Colorado river is the water supply for 40 million people, fuels hydropower resources in eight states and, of course, supports agriculture in the West. Alternatives are being discussed that range from giving water priority to major farming regions in California, which would have the effect of letting a large part of the water supply of Los Angeles and Phoenix be taken down to virtually zero, according to Interior Department Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, to distributing approximately 15% of the river’s flow to all users in Arizona, California and Nevada - to doing nothing. Beaudreau says that option would be the most consequential of all. Stay tuned, as we won’t know what decision will be made and which scenario plays out until the end of the summer when the Interior Department makes their decision.
Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund warns about the coming global food fight. He points to the crisis in Europe where the cost-of-living increase is the biggest in a generation. Food prices he says remain stubbornly high, and the percentage of household budgets spent in supermarkets on food has increased. In France, food inflation is 16% and is 20% in both Germany and Portugal. The situation has triggered strikes, protests, and a call for higher wages. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has blocked Ukraine’s grains and edible oils to be exported and is getting backed up in Eastern Europe. There are bottlenecks in the infrastructure, and farmers are holding out for higher prices - many local livelihoods are under threat. Why is this important? Torreon Creekmore of the US based Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity group gives the answer, “When crops fail and prices rise, people don’t have the money to purchase food, which can lead to stealing, then riots, social unrest and mass migrations.” According to the United Nations, society needs to increase food production radically by 2050 to reduce the number of victims of conflict. In 2018 the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the use of food insecurity and starvation as a tactic of war. Let’s remember that many of the worst wars were started over food and then accompanied by mass starvation. If I had a crystal ball that looked backwards, I would probably see the earliest conflicts of our prehistoric ancestors took place over who had – and did not have – food. There are countless wars reported to have started over salt, spices, cod fish, lobster, pigs and the list goes on. We can expect to see less food and beverage imports from other countries and our US farmers and producers replace those imports with more domestically produced ingredients and foods.
The UN World Commission on Environment and Development’s definition of sustainability is “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” We seem to focus most of our talks and initiatives on the environment, which is critical – but we need to also have a primary focus on our foods. Let’s be sure to include food in our sustainability discussions and definitions.
Tomorrow, the 2023 Trend Forecast continues with a discussion about the future of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).