Americans enjoy greater access to food than most people around the world. We’re secure in the knowledge that we do not face mass starvation or famine. Our farms and agricultural industry can provide for us, as well as for many people around the world.
Disasters affect the production of food, as well as its distribution and processing. In the late summer of 2017, three hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Jose—threatened the mainland U.S., and each posed the potential to disrupt the nation’s food supply.
America can generally endure the short-term effects of natural disasters. The overall food supply remains steady, although imports can be negatively impacted when a disaster occurs in another nation. We enjoy an abundant access to food, both locally-grown and imported. Our infrastructure allows our food supply to remain constant despite natural disasters.
Seasons Really Don’t Exist for Consumers
An integrated transportation system means consumers can enjoy just about any fruit or vegetable no matter what the growing season for that plant. Americans can eat fresh fruits in winter, lettuce in the early spring, and corn all year long.
Our ability to eat out-of-season is a product of our ability to import food. The U.S. imports 15% of its food supply, including 50% of its fresh fruit and 80% of its seafood.
This access to food year-round comes at a price. Economic pressures overseas, as well as distant natural disasters, can disrupt the import of our food supply. As a result, the price of a commodity from sources abroad increases, driving the costs up significantly for the consumer. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, agriculture absorbs 84% of the economic impact.
For example, a shortened rainy season due to climate change in Africa may result in a lack of some grains used in animal feed imports. Wholesalers must tap other, costlier, sources which ultimately results in higher feed prices for American farmers.
Because the U.S. grows sufficient food to feed most of our population, however, the main concerns for the U.S. food supply stem from natural disasters affecting the U.S. mainland.
California grows more food than any other region in the U.S. The state’s Central Valley produces roughly one-quarter of the nation’s food supply. The region depends on groundwater pumped from the local aquifer.
Recently, however, California and the Central Valley suffered a five-year drought. The drought reduced the water available for the Central Valley and the rest of the state, and that drought led to agricultural declines. Those declines produce higher prices for consumers.
In many cases, however, consumers have not felt the full effects of the drought. Consumers frequently can find replacement products from areas not affected by drought. For example, the USDA notes that while California produces 86% of U.S. grown avocados, we import 82% of the avocados consumed in the U.S.
The good news – major hurricanes have minimal impact on food production. The bad news – hurricanes greatly interfere with our ability to transport food.
The ports generally affected by hurricanes act as hubs for banana and other fruit imports from South America. Disruption of transport at these ports can cause disruption throughout the country.
Despite the impact hurricanes can have on the Gulf ports, the largest banana importing port in the U.S, Wilmington, Delaware, remains largely safe from major hurricane-caused disruptions due to its location in the Northeast.
Flooding and Other Weather Issues
Rain and snow can produce flooding in agricultural areas. A major flood can cause prices to increase immediately even though the commodity affected by the flood remains in good supply in the short term. Retailers anticipate future costs based on the effects of the flood. Most will immediately adjust prices to help alleviate the anticipated need to use other, more expensive, sources for the commodity in the future.
Most cold-related issues—frost, extreme cold, and snow—can have similar effects on prices.
The most significant effect a natural disaster can cause is a short-term price increase, as the food-supply chain adjusts to disruptions in availability or transportation.
Vulnerabilities remain, however. Monocultural agriculture, overuse of aquifers, and climate change may have significant effects on the future of the U.S. food supply.
Solutions to these issues are subject to debate. But the large size of the country and the diversity of the food supply suggests Americans will continue to have abundant access to food.