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Penny pinching

(article, Caroline Cummins)

If you've read Michael Pollan's latest, In Defense of Food, you'll know that he advocates spending more on better food. Elitist? Sure, he's been accused of that before. But really, the only reason real food costs more is because there's so much cheap industrial food pushing it out of the marketplace. 

Now comes word that even all that "cheap" food (i.e., food whose price tag doesn't include the environmental, health, or animal-cruelty costs involved) won't be cheap for much longer. 

As the Guardian reported earlier this month, "Food prices \[in Britain\] are rising faster than they have at any time since the mid-1970s . . ., which collates supermarket prices daily, puts the overall rise last year at 12 per cent. That means the average family's shopping bill has gone up by £750 a year." 

In American dollars? That's an additional $1,500 a year, or an extra $125 every month. (For a deeper look at American food-cost statistics, check out the Oregonian's recent article on food prices.)

So what's up with the rising cost of food? The recent New York Times series called "The Food Chain: The High Cost of Eating" pointed to rising fuel costs worldwide as a lever lifting food costs. In such countries as far-flung as Mexico, Senegal, and Uzbekistan, people have even rioted in protest against the high cost of such basic food staples as wheat, soybeans, and cooking oil.

The increasing value of fossil fuels, however — as both the New York Times and the Guardian pointed out — is only part of the story. Other factors include climate (bad weather means bad harvests), commodity market speculation (in such staple crops as, yup, wheat and soybeans), the growing biofuels industry (which relies on food crops as source material), and the booming economies of China and India (more money means more demand for food purchases).

As one professor told the Guardian, "We may look back at the second half of the last century as an era of cheap food."