Order Code RS22859
April 10, 2008
Food Price Inflation: Causes and Impacts
Specialist in Agricultural Policy
Resources, Science and Industry Division
Specialist in Domestic Social Policy
Domestic Social Policy Division
U.S. food prices rose 4% in 2007 and are expected to gain 3.5% to 4.5% in 2008.
Higher farm commodity prices and energy costs are the leading factors behind higher
food prices. Farm commodity prices have surged because (1) demand for corn for
ethanol is competing with food and feed for acreage; (2) global food grain and oilseed
supplies are low due to poor harvests; (3) the weak dollar has increased U.S. exports;
(4) rising incomes in large, rapidly emerging economies have changed eating habits; and
(5) input costs have increased. Higher energy costs increase transportation, processing,
and retail costs.
Although the cost of commodities such as corn or wheat are a small part of the final
retail price of most food products, they have risen enough to have an impact on retail
prices. Generally, price changes at the farm level have a diminished impact on retail
prices, especially for highly processed products.
The impact of higher food prices on U.S. households varies according to income.
Lower-income households spend a greater portion of their income on food and feel price
hikes more acutely than high-income families. Higher food costs impact domestic food
assistance efforts in numerous ways depending on whether benefits are indexed,
enrollments are limited, or additional funds are made available. Higher food and
transportation costs also reduce the impact of U.S. contributions of food aid under
current budget constraints.
U.S. food prices are increasing. According to USDA, the Consumer Price Index
(CPI) for “all food” increased 4% in 2007, the largest annual jump since 1990. In 2008,
this trend is expected to continue: the “all food” CPI is forecast to increase 3.5% to 4.5%.1
This rapid inflation follows an extended period of stable food prices. From 1987 through
2007, food prices increased an average of 2.7% per year, excluding the drought years of
1989 and 1990.2 During 2005 and 2006, food prices rose 2.4%. This report examines the
cause of food price increases and evaluates their impacts on U.S. consumers.
Key Factors Behind Higher Commodity Prices
Robust Domestic Demand. Corn, soybean, and wheat prices all reached 10-year
highs during the 2006-2007 crop year. High prices for corn reflected increased use for
ethanol (22% of the 2007 crop) and strong exports. High corn prices in turn encouraged
growers to move acres from wheat and soybeans into corn, contributing to tight supplies
and higher prices for those crops. U.S. farm prices in 2007 for corn are estimated at $3.75
to $4.00 per bushel, compared with $2.00 in 2005; soybean prices are estimated at $10.00
to $10.80 per bushel, up from $5.66 in 2005; and wheat prices are estimated at $6.50 to
$6.80 per bushel, up from $3.42 in 2005.3
Global Stocks Are at Low Levels. Globally, stocks of corn, wheat, and
soybeans are at historically low levels. Drought in Australia and Eastern Europe and poor
weather in Canada, Western Europe, and the Ukraine have reduced available quantities.
With world stocks for wheat at a 30-year low,4 buyers are turning to the U.S. for supplies.
Global Consumption Patterns Are Changing. Higher incomes are boosting
demand for processed foods and meat in countries such as India and China. These shifts
require more feed grains and edible oil. Even in low-income countries of sub-Saharan
Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the vegetable oil share of diets has risen as processed
food consumption rises. In China, consumption of meats, other livestock products, and
fruits has increased while consumption of grain-based foods (such as bread) has slipped.5
Improving food distribution systems are altering Chinese food preferences by introducing
non-local foods. In India, per capita consumption of grains has fallen, while that of animal
products, edible oils, vegetables and fruits has increased.6 Better food distribution systems
are altering Chinese food preferences by introducing non-local foods.
“Food CPI, Prices, and Expenditures Briefing Room,” U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Economic Research Service (ERS), at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAnd
USDA/ERS, Amber Waves, “Corn Prices Near Record High,” by Ephraim Leibtag, February
U.S. Department of Agriculture, “World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates,” March
For more information, see CRS Report RS22824, High Wheat Prices: What are the Issues?
Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, “Changing Diets in China’s Cities: Empirical
Fact or Urban Legend?” by Fexgzia Dong and Frank H. Fuller, at [http://www.card.iastate.edu/
USDA/ERS, Amber Waves, “Rising Food Prices Intensify Food Insecurity in Developing
Countries,” by Stacy Rosen and Shahla Shapouri, February 2008.
Weak Dollar Boosts Demand for U.S. Exports. As the dollar depreciates
against foreign currencies, U.S. exports become more competitive, boosting demand and
prices. The dollar, adjusted for relative inflation rates, is expected to depreciate 7%
against the euro, 6% against the Chinese yuan, and 8% against the Brazilian real in 2008.7
The exchange rate is an important determinant of agricultural trade. The depreciation of
the U.S. dollar since 2002 has helped improve U.S. agricultural export performance.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Economic Research Service
(ERS), the dollar is forecast to be up 2% versus the yen, unchanged against the Canadian
dollar, down 2% against the Mexican peso, and down 6% against the Argentine peso in
How Do Higher Commodity Prices Impact Consumers?
As commodity prices rise, food prices follow, but to a lesser extent. On average,
about 20 cents of each dollar spent on food is the farm share — the retail cost less the
value-added after the product leaves the farm and moves along the marketing chain to the
retail outlet.8 In less processed foods, the farm component of the final product is larger
and changes in the farm price have a greater impact at the retail level. For instance, eggs,
and fresh fruits and vegetables undergo minimal processing after they leave the farm —
they are consumed in essentially their original form. The retail value of such products
tends to have a large farm component and changes at the farm level have a greater impact
on the consumer. On the other hand, in highly processed products, such as breakfast
cereal, the corn, wheat, or rice used is completely transformed and the final product bears
little resemblance to the original commodity. An 18-ounce box of corn flakes contained
about 3.3 cents worth of corn in 2006.9 Higher corn prices in 2007 increased the corn
share to 4.9 cents. This is a small part of the retail value of a box of corn flakes. Most
of the retail price represents packaging, processing, advertising, transportation, profit, and
Energy costs affect all levels of the food production sector. Recent record crude oil
prices in excess of $110 per barrel affect costs throughout the marketing chain.10
Producers spend more for fertilizer (for which natural gas is a major input), crop drying,
and transportation — raising production costs. At the processing, wholesale, and retail
levels, the cost of transportation and operating packing houses, manufacturing plants, and
retail stores has increased. Some of these costs are passed on to consumers in the form
of higher prices. In addition, high petroleum prices increase the competitiveness of
ethanol, further boosting demand for corn.
USDA/ERS, “Outlook for U.S. Agricultural Trade,” February 21, 2008.
USDA/ERS, “Price Spreads from Farm to Consumer,” by Howard Elitzak, at [http://www.
USDA/ERS, Amber Waves, “Corn Prices Near Record High,” by Ephriam Leibtag, February
West Texas Intermediate (WTI), a crude oil price traded at Cushing, OK, reached $110 per
barrel for the first time on March 13, 2008.
Food Price Changes Vary by Food Type
Meat, Poultry, Dairy, and Eggs. The CPI for all meats advanced 3.3% during
2007.11 Beef increased 4.4%, pork 2%, broilers 5.2%, and eggs 29.2%, and dairy products
advanced 7.4% in 2007. The farm share of these products is large compared with other
foods, so changes at the farm level are passed, to a greater extent, to the consumer. In
many cases, higher feed and energy costs were behind these increases. Strong export
demand — spurred by the weak dollar — and reduced flocks played a role in the price
hikes for poultry and eggs. The CPI for meats is forecast to increase by 1.5% to 2.5% in
2008. Compared with other food categories, these high-value items also account for a
large share (11.1%) of the average consumer’s food budget.
Fruits and Vegetables. Prices for fruits and vegetables gained 3.8% in 2007 and
are forecast to increase 3% to 4% in 2008. Production shortfalls affected some varieties,
especially bananas, the largest by volume. Supplies of oranges were strong, offsetting
other declines. Energy costs were a large factor in higher fruit and vegetable price
increases. Fruits and vegetables account for 8.4 cents of the consumer food dollar.
Cereals and Bakery Products. The CPI for these items advanced 4.4% in 2007
and is projected to rise 6.5% to 7.5% next year. Tight global wheat supplies and acreage
reductions to promote ethanol production have caused a spike in wheat prices. However
shifts in wheat prices have a relatively small impact on grocery store prices because the
farm share of these products is small. Prices for these product are affected more by
marketing factors such as transportation, labor, and energy costs than the cost of basic
Oilseeds and Related Products. Low stocks and strong export demand for
soybeans are reflected in the CPI for these products, which gained 2.9% in 2007. While
much of this category is supplied by soybeans, substitutes exist and will help moderate
increases. In 2008, the CPI is set to rise 7% to 8% due to continued strong export demand
from countries where changing diets require more vegetable oil.
Impact on Low-Income Households
Although U.S. consumers generally spend a smaller share of their income on food
compared with many other countries, that share varies widely across income levels.
Overall, U.S. households spend 12.6% of their income on food,12 so changes in the price
of food have to be large to affect their total budget. However, the picture is vastly
different for low-income households. In 2006, households with incomes in the lowest
reported income category spent 17.1% of their income on food. Households with incomes
greater than $70,000 spent 11.3% of their income on food. When food prices rise,
families with lower incomes feel the pinch more acutely since food expenditures make
up a larger share of their total expenditures. Also, higher-income families can shift food
Food CPI’s for 2007 and 2008 are from the USDA/ERS Food CPI, Prices, and Expenditures
Briefing Room, at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/cpifoodandexpenditures/].
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Survey, “Table
46, Income Before Taxes,” at [http://stats.bls.gov/cex/].
consumption to the home from restaurants, saving money without reducing consumption.
A 4% to 5% increase in food expenditures has a significant impact on purchasing power
for low-income families.
Federal Spending for Domestic Food Assistance Programs
Food price inflation increases spending on domestic assistance efforts. Increasing
prices encourage those who are eligible but not participating to enroll. Increasing prices
translate directly into benefit payments and per-meal subsidies for entitlement programs
in which benefits are indexed to food-price inflation (e.g., food stamps, school meal
programs). Increasing prices place pressure on appropriators to provide more funding to
support caseloads for discretionary programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition
Program for Women, Infants, and Children (the WIC program).
Food Stamps. The Food Stamp program is the largest of the federally supported
domestic food assistance programs. Its benefits are indexed annually for changes in the
cost of USDA’s least costly food plan, the “Thrifty Food Plan” (TFP). For a number of
years and well into 2006, annual increases in the TFP typically ranged between 1.5% and
2.5%, with a few exceptions. However, starting in late 2006, food prices (as reflected in
the cost of items in the TFP) began to increase at a faster rate. The last benefit increase,
effective October 2007, was 4.6%. As a result, the average monthly benefit will be $6 per
person higher in FY2008.
The impact of benefit increases on food stamp costs also depends on participation.
For FY2008, the benefit increase noted above (combined with estimated growth in
enrollment) yields a likely $2 billion cost attributable to adjustments for food price
increases (out of total spending of $36.7 billion), about double the $1 billion that would
have occurred based on pre-2007 price increases. Costs are expected to increase even
more in FY2009.
Child Nutrition. Federal payments for lunches and breakfasts served to children
in participating school meal programs are the second largest federal commitment to
domestic food assistance, about $11 billion per year. These per-meal subsidies — now
ranging as high as $2.83 a meal, including the value of USDA commodity donations —
are indexed every July to food-price changes reflected in the “Food Away From Home”
component of the CPI over the 12-month period ending each May.
Indexed maximum subsidy rates (those paid for the majority of school meals that are
served free or at a reduced price to children from lower-income families) have increased
by some 25 cents a meal between the 2005-2006 school year and the current 2007-2008
school year. The annual increase in subsidies has gone from 2.9% for the 2005-2006
school year to 3.3% for the 2007-2008 school year, increasing federal support by about
$300 million above spending if earlier food price increases had prevailed. According to
ERS, this trend is expected to continue into FY2009.
The WIC Program. Unlike food stamps and child nutrition programs, the WIC
program is discretionary. Spending depends on annual appropriations, based largely on
estimates of participation and the cost of the food packages that are purchased with WIC
vouchers. The value of benefits is not indexed, per se. Rather, WIC vouchers are
redeemable at whatever the participating retailer charges for the items covered by the
vouchers, which differ according to the type of recipient (e.g., pregnant mother, infant,
child). As a result, the cost of WIC vouchers reflect food price changes without the time
lag built into other nutrition programs like food stamps. Just as important, WIC vouchers
are highly specific as to the food items they cover and have a relatively heavy emphasis
on certain types of food — dairy items and infant formula being a major component.
In recent years, the cost of WIC food vouchers has varied a great deal, largely
because of changes in dairy-related food prices. The average per-participant monthly cost
of vouchers has ranged from $34.80 in FY2002 to $39.15 in FY2007. However the
annual percentage increase has been very small for some years (1% or less for FY2003,
FY2005, and FY2006) and more substantial for other years (6.6% for FY2004 and 5.6%
for FY2007). Most recently, monthly per-participant WIC food costs averaged $42.50 for
the first three months of FY2008. Given this significant volatility, it is difficult to
produce specific estimates of the effect of food price inflation on WIC program costs.
However, the ERS forecasts of increases in egg and dairy product prices in the 2% to 4%
range in 2008 indicate that relatively high WIC food costs are likely in the near term.
Foreign Food Aid
Higher commodity and food prices reduce our ability to provide food aid to other
countries without additional appropriations. Food aid usually takes the form of basic food
grains such as wheat, sorghum, and corn, and vegetable oil — commodities critical to
developing-country diets. Since there is very little value added for these commodities,
shifts in prices translate directly into higher prices for food-insecure countries or reduced
food aid contributions per dollar spent. Also, higher energy costs have increased shipping
costs for both food purchases and food aid. Unlike some domestic nutrition programs,
foreign food aid is not adjusted to account for changing costs. After a long period of
declining food costs, developing countries are facing increased food import bills — for
some countries as high as 25% in 2007.13
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has indicated that rising
food and fuel prices would result in a significant reduction in emergency food aid.
According to press reports in March 2008, USAID expects a $200 million shortfall in
funding to meet emergency food aid needs. For FY2008, Congress appropriated $1.2
billion for P.L. 480 food aid, the same as FY2007. For FY2009, the President’s budget
again requested $1.2 billion. In six out of ten years since 1999, supplemental funding for
P.L. 480 Title II food aid has been appropriated.
Last year, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) estimated it would need $2.9 billion
to cover 2008 food aid needs. Recent commodity, energy, and food cost increases have
boosted this estimate to $3.4 billion. According to the WFP, the current price increases
force the world’s poorest people to spend a larger proportion of their income on food.
USDA/ERS, Rising Food Prices Intensify Food Insecurity in Developing Countries,” Amber
Waves, February 2008.