The Midwest is in the middle of the worst drought it’s had in decades, and the timing couldn’t be worse. Right at the time of year when corn is being fertilized, it has been too hot and dry to allow for proper reproduction — “corn sex” is an absurdly difficult process. And so the United States Department of Agriculture has brought its initially optimistic estimates for this year’s corn crop down — way down. The government agency estimates that corn farmers will yield just 146 bushels per acre, but just a month ago it was forecasting 166 bushels an acre.
Obviously we’re not going to run out of corn, and historically speaking, 146 bushels per acre, even if it’s optimistic, is incredibly productive. Until the 1940’s, American farmers typically yielded about 26 bushels an acre. We’ve come a long way.
That said, we’ve also developed a food system that is highly-dependent on corn. It’s heavily subsidized and abundant, and therefore incredibly cheap. High fructose corn syrup is cheaper than sugar in the U.S., which is why we use corn in our sodas and even in bread, and a lot of other surprising places — condiments, salad dressings, yogurts, the list goes on. And we use corn to feed our livestock, despite the fact that these animals did not evolve to eat the stuff — this is in part why cows are on so many antibiotics: they’re ruminants, not corn eaters. According to Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the modern American looks like a “walking corn chip” compared even to Mesoamerican peoples who depended almost entirely on the crop.
According to some, corn is in a full three-quarters of goods at our grocery stores (!!!). So as its prices rise, so too will the price of many foods on your weekly shopping list. Here’s a few.
1. Beef: It takes a lot of corn to get a calf up to slaughter weight — about 1,200 pounds — in 15 months, and so beef is one of the goods most quickly affected by fluctuations in the price of corn. Furthermore, ranchers have a habit of sending cattle to slaughter prematurely if the price of feed gets too high, as a way of cutting losses, and this further depletes the amount of meat available, raising its price again.
Grass fed beef presumably won’t be affected, but it is already rather expensive (and occasionally very bland, which is unfortunate!).
2. Chicken: These things live pretty miserable lives for the 45 days we fatten them up with corn feed. And like beef, chickens will become more expensive in the coming year due to the heightened costs of their main source of calories: corn.
This won’t mess up your barbecue plans, however, because these price increases won’t take effect until the winter, or even next year, according to analysts.
3. Milk: Just as cattle raised for beef need lots of corn to make beef, dairy cows need lots of corn to make their milk. So milk, too will become more expensive in the near future — much more quickly than meats’ prices will be affected. Milk comes to market sooner than meat, after all — cows are making it every day. Analysts estimate that the price of a gallon of milk could be 25 cents higher by Christmas — holiday hosting tip: if eggnog prices are up, cut it with a little extra brandy this year to make sure you have enough for your guests.
4. Cheese: And to this list we can add yogurt, cream and any other fresh dairy product. This shouldn’t be a brutal price increase: analysts estimate the wholesale price of cheese will go up by about 20 cents a pound.
5. Gas: Bet you didn’t see that coming! Although gasoline is not something you should eat, nor do we feed corn to crude oil to get it up to slaughter weight, its price fluctuates with corn’s. Why? Because we use corn to make ethanol, and we put ethanol in our gasoline.
Imagine if this continued to happen year after year. We would probably regret making a food system that is so totally dependent on one crop — one which likely isn’t very healthy for us.