What El Nino Could Mean for Your Food Supply

September 14, 2015

El Nino’s devastating effects on crop production and global food markets may mean higher prices at the supermarket. How can consumers prepare?

Los Angelinos are no strangers to the phenomenon known as El Nino, a recurring global event in which unusually warm waters in the southern Pacific Ocean and weakened trade winds create extreme weather patterns around the world. Typically occurring every three to five years, the phenomenon has disastrous potential and leads to devastating droughts, floods, landslides and wildfires. It accounts for one of California’ s wettest winters on record - the El Nino of 1997-98, which resulted in 17 deaths and more than $500 million in damages statewide. (Read more about preparing for El Nino) Scientists and climatologists caution that global warming may increase the frequency and severity of El Nino, and climate models suggest that this winter may in fact rival the 1997-98 event in intensity.

While increased precipitation may sound like good news for our drought-stricken lawns and the prospect of nature-made California skiing is ever appealing, El Nino’s devastating effects on crop production and global food markets may mean higher prices at the supermarket. During the last El Nino in 2010, prices of staple foods like rice rose as much as 45%. Excessive rains in South America means coffee, banana, sugarcane, soybean and cocoa crops could also be affected. In Australia, the hot, dry conditions are hurting grain and cotton crops, causing some farmers, particularly those who rely on natural rainfall, to choose not to plant because of the forecast. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index has seen a rise, and millions of people, particularly in the developing world, are expected to be the hardest hit.

How should consumers prepare? The reality is, the phenomenon is unpredictable, and every El Nino is different. Even if the rains come, they do not necessarily solve California’s drought problems, given the huge deficits over the last few years. To prepare yourself and your family it is advised to put together a disaster supply kit, which includes a variety of canned and non-perishable foods, at least a three-day supply per person. For water it is recommended to have one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation. 

There may be power outages that could last for several days; stock foods that do not require refrigeration, cooking, water or special preparation. Take into consideration any special dietary needs or restrictions and avoid foods that will make you thirsty. Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, and  vegetables (and a can opener) are crucial items for any emergency kit; choosing low-sodium or no-salt-added varieties also help to minimize the need for drinking water, which might be limited. Dehydrated foods also work well in emergency kits because they are compact and can be stored for many years. 

In dry times or drenched times, it is always wise to plan ahead. Ask your neighborhood supermarket for any other suggestions pertaining to a disruption in food prices as it relates to El Nino.