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5 Ways to Drought-Proof Your Grocery Budget

Food prices are already going up as a result of the terrible drought in the Midwest. But your groceries can still be wildly affordable.
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Food prices are already going up as a result of the terrible drought in the Midwest. Withered corn and soy crops will likely boost the cost of meat, soft drinks, fast food, and processed food more next year. These foods rely on corn and soy, which are usually cheap because they are so productive and because of heavy government subsidies.

But your groceries can still be wildly affordable. In fact, if you eat as much peanut butter as my family does, your grocery prices might even drop soon. My price checks show prices going up since last fall for my favorite spread, which now can cost 50 percent more than usual. But relief is on the way. Last week, the USDA released a report projecting that the 2012 peanut crop will be up 46 percent over last year.

The drought that is scorching soy beans seems to be not so bad for dried beans and lentils, which are mostly grown in states along the Canadian border and in California.

Here in North Carolina, we've had rain nearly every day, so look for good prices on our top crops of sweet potatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers. On Aug. 10, the USDA projected that North Carolina should produce 32 percent more peanuts compared to last year and winter wheat production should be up 10 percent. Even corn should be up 30 percent and soybeans up 28 percent.

5 Ways to Save

1) Eat low on the food chain to avoid using costly fuel, scarce water.

An easy way to see what foods will cost more in a drought is to look at the energy and water they require to produce. The higher these ratios are, the more your wallet will feel the effects of bad weather.

At a meeting of the Canadian Society of Animal Science, Cornell professor Dr. David Pimentel reported that "chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1."

Factory farms where cows are fed grain instead of their natural diet of grass are the worst. Pimentel's analysis also shows that eating low on the food chain reduces demand for water:

"Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat. In comparison, soybean production uses 2,000 liters for kilogram of food produced; rice, 1,912; wheat, 900; and potatoes, 500 liters."

2) Avoid processed food.

Processed food is full of corn and soy, the crops most hit by the drought. It's pervasive in the Standard American Diet. For example, when Dr. Sanjay Gupta got a strand of hair tested to see how much corn was in his diet, he found that 69 percent of the carbon came from corn. Dr. Todd Dawson, the University of California-Berkeley who did the test told him (emphasis mine):

"We're like corn chips walking because we really have a very, very large fraction of corn in our diets, and we actually can't help it because it's an additive in so many of the foods we find on the market shelves."

Can't help it? People who have corn allergies have a rough time of it, but it's easy and healthy to greatly reduce your corn consumption. Celebrate fresh corn in the summer. Eat some corn bread and corn tortillas. But don't bloat your budget or body by swilling down processed food, which as Michael Pollan points out in Omnivore's Dilemma contains corn in about one in four items in a typical grocery store, including frozen yogurt, margarine, packaged cake mixes, Cheez Whiz, hot dogs, and coffee whitener. On the other hand, Marion Nestle writes that corn is a highly-subsidized crop, so any drought-related increase will be to an artificially low starting price.

3) Go organic to encourage drought-resistant farming.

The Rodale Institute's 30-year farming study found that organic fields out-produce conventional ones during droughts.

"Organic corn yields were 31 percent higher than conventional in years of drought. These drought yields are remarkable when compared to genetically engineered "drought tolerant" varieties which saw increases of only 6.7 percent to 13.3 percent over conventional (non-drought resistant) varieties."

But can we feed the world using green farming practices? You bet, says a United Nations study:

"Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks, notes the study, which is based on extensive review of existing scientific data.

"It simply is not the best choice anymore today," Mr. De Schutter stresses. "A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation -- and this is what is needed in a world of limited resources.

4) Don't waste food.

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, found "Americans waste more than 40 percent of the food we produce for consumption. That comes at an annual cost of more than $100 billion."

Buy what you will eat, feed your freezer, and start a Stoup container if you don't already have one. My book, Wildly Affordable Organic, is full of tips on reducing waste. The website Expendable Edibles has many fun and even wild tips on squeezing the value out of the food you've already bought.

And don't eat more than you need. It's bad enough putting extra food in the trash, but it's worse putting it on your hips. Eat the right amount of healthy food to save money and get healthy.

5) Buy local food, especially if the weather is good in your area this year.

Buying fresh food locally reduces shipping and storage costs. These savings are usually passed on to the customer. Buying locally is also an inexpensive way way to improve homeland security. A diverse and distributed food system will allow areas with food to help feed others stricken by drought, flood, fire, or even frogs. Global warming puts every area at risk and we're doing almost nothing to avoid what Bill McKibben calls global catastrophe. Food riots are expensive.

I fear that so many stories have appeared on the drought that even in relatively unaffected regions shoppers are avoiding farmers' markets and fresh produce. I talked with Clay Smith of Redbud Farm today, who said that even thought so far he's been able to get by with an irrigation system that uses well water, this has been the hottest July on record. But just before the closing bell at the market today, Redbud Farm and many of the other stands had plenty of wonderful fruit and vegetables left to sell.

Same solution, different problem.

I started the Cook for Good project just over five years ago, when I saw that focusing on thrift when shopping for food triggered a number of good side effects. The basic concept continues to help address many major problems we have today, from global warming to obesity to resisting the influence of Big Food. All of these benefits can be yours just by cooking real food. Now that's delicious!

What are you doing to drought-proof your budget? Share your tips and comments below.

For more by Linda Watson, click here.

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