Life Food & Drink

Monday 22 September 2014

The freak weather that's making your dinner more expensive

Published 14/10/2012 | 06:00

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The lights are low, the music romantic and the Chardonnay chilled. The juicy Italian olives add to the warm mood before you sit down to a meal of tender pork cutlets simmered with spiced apple slices followed by strawberries.

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It's all perfect -- apart from the price. Everything on your plates and in your glasses is more expensive this year.

The reason? Freak weather, not just at home in Ireland, but all over the world, from Europe to the US to Down Under.

One of thousands of Irish farmers who know all about it is Philip Draper, from Birr, Co Offaly.

Rain has wreaked near havoc with his carrot crop. He says it was the worst summer since he took over the farm in 1991.

As he gazes across his fields, which are still soggy after the wettest summer in 50 years, he recalls the desperate 16-hour days when the weather relented briefly.

He says: "All crop yields are down -- potatoes are about half what they were last year. There are people farming 40 and 50 years and they haven't seen a summer as bad as the one just gone.

"We had a good spring for getting crops in. Our carrots went in three weeks earlier than last year but we were two weeks later harvesting.

"I'd say prices in the shops must be hit later in the year . . ."

And it's not just because of the wet weather here and in Britain. In the US this summer, the worst drought in 50 years destroyed almost half the corn crop and a third of the soya bean crop. In Canada and Southern Europe, too, harvests have been decimated. This week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome warned that global wheat production is expected to fall 5.2% in 2012.

Jimmy Burke, UCD professor of crop science, says: "Prolonged bouts of heavy rain seriously affected not only Irish farmers but also their counterparts in Britain, France and Germany."

He warns that pressures on the international food market "are sending world prices soaring".

Accorsing to new figures from the UN, prices for wheat have already risen 25% in 2012, maize 13%, and dairy prices rose 7% just last month.

Dermott Jewell, CEO of the Consumers' Association of Ireland, says the effect of the prolonged summer drought on the multi-billion dollar US corn crop coupled with the unprecedented lack of summer rain in countries like Spain and Greece, will inevitably push up the cost of food in Ireland.

"I'm already surprised at the speed at which prices are increasing," he said.

An example of the general upward trend is that even the cost of the good old sausage and rasher -- staple fare of the traditional Irish fry-up -- is set to increase as pork prices rise to record levels.

Both the Irish Farmers' Association and their UK counterparts have warned of a dwindling supply of bacon, and both organisations confirm pig meat farmers are under intense pressure on their profit margins.

"We can see a huge deficit coming in the supply of pig meat within the next three to six months," said IFA National Pigs and Pigmeat chairman Tim Cullinan.

And, because of climate change, it may not be a one-off event.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, says: "Agriculture as it exists today evolved over 11,000 years of reasonable stable climate -- but that climate system is no more."

It's too soon for scientists to link this year's freak weather to global warming -- but more downpours and droughts are expected in an increasingly topsy-turvy world.

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