Serious Eats

Crop Freezes in Mexico Affect Grocery Prices in the U.S.

"World food prices are reaching all-time highs."

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[Flickr: Lee Coursey]

The last couple of weeks have brought unexpectedly low temperatures to the growing region of Sinaloa, Mexico. As a result, many growers have experienced crop loss of up to 80 or even 100%. Not all growers and crops have been affected, but the industry is nervous and wary of significant price hikes in the coming weeks.

Tomatoes, bell peppers, beans, and eggplant are among the vegetables most devastated, according to The Packer, an industry news website. Watermelon, sweet onions, and grapes have stood up relatively well to the cold.

During the winter months, the U.S. sources the bulk of its vegetable supply from Mexico and Florida. During December and January, Florida experienced a cold snap that wiped out much of the state's sweet corn, bell pepper, eggplant, and green bean crop. More purchasing was consequently shifted to Mexican growers. This most recent freeze is therefore even more compromising to the produce industry.

Beginning in late March or early April, most growing and purchasing is centered in California—but in the meantime, vegetable prices are expected to rise as stock goes down. The extent of the damage done to Mexican crops is so far unknown, but the most recent "Vegetable and Melons Outlook" report from the USDA predicts that fresh vegetable supplies will "remain below normal for the next month or two," accompanied by higher prices for at least the next six weeks.

Some purveyors are decidedly more spooked, though. Distribution giant Sysco released a bulletin to its buyers, entitled "Mexico's Big Freeze," that speaks of "weather disasters" leading to "volatile prices" and "mediocre [produce] quality." Yikes.

The latest official reports, however, indicate that prices spiked earlier in the month and are now stabilizing. The USDA noted that two-layer cartons of vine-ripe field-grown Mexican tomatoes were $22.95 on Feburary 8—a staggering jump from $6.95 only a week earlier. By February 16, however, this price had dropped to $10.95.

Consumers should therefore be aware of which crops have been affected, but stored produce and expansion to other vegetable-growing regions should lead to less pressure on shoppers.

In the past year, several weather events have led to agricultural disasters. World food prices are reaching all-time highs. In the U.S., we are largely shielded from global market fluctuations. However, environmental factors beyond our control are a strong force, and could lead to dramatic effects for our food supply. Hopefully this particular crop freeze will have only short-term impact on grocery prices.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.

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