“Reaction” is the keyword this week as food producers confronted demands from the weather, legislation and consumer preferences.

  • Extreme drought hurt crops and threatened higher prices.
  • Fast food adapted quickly to changing tastes.
  • The Inflation Reduction Act garnered muted commentary.

It’s a Dry Heat

A hot, dry summer is taking a toll on crop and livestock production in the western U.S., Europe and China. While the full impact won’t be known until harvest ends, it certainly adds to concerns of less plentiful — and hence, costlier — food.

  • The American Farm Bureau Federation published a survey of “ground-level” drought effects, documenting losses from Texas ranches to North Dakota grain fields to California orchards. CNN phrased the analysis more dramatically: “farmers are killing their own crops and selling cows.”
  • Vox writer Benji Jones framed historically low flow on the Colorado River as a threat to irrigation-reliant “winter veggies” grown in California and Arizona.
  • Food Processing noted that tomato products are going up in price as water becomes scarce for California growers who produce 95% of U.S. tomatoes.
  • Reuters reported that Europe has nearly matched U.S. drought conditions, with 47% of the continent under warning conditions.
  • The Wall Street Journal added that other aspects of trade suffer from droughts, too: low rivers generate less hydroelectric power and prevent food from getting shipped to market.

“If Americans didn’t love picking up food without leaving their cars before the pandemic, they certainly do now.”

Lisa Jennings, reporter, Nation’s Restaurant News

Fast Food Fast Takes

Quick service restaurants are evolving, well, quickly. Whether adapting to post-pandemic life (are we there yet?) or trying new menu items to accelerate growth, the category has been ripe with interesting developments.

  • After noting how frequently customers “hack” the sandwich (Washington Post), McDonald’s announced it would be testing a chicken Big Mac sandwich in the Miami area (USA Today).
  • While McDonald’s McPlant underperformed, Burger King launched a new plant-based menu staple: the Impossible Original Chick’n Sandwich (Food Navigator). It will complement the Impossible Whopper that has appeared on BK’s menu since 2019.
  • Taco Bell also will attempt to attract plant-based fans, testing a soy- and pea-protein concoction in its tacos and signature Crunchwrap Supreme. Business Insider put together a colorful first-person slideshow about the experience.
  • Lettuce is in trouble again, this time for allegedly sickening Wendy’s customers. Fox Business reported the multiple lawsuits the chain is facing after dozens of customers reported illness from E. coli-tainted romaine lettuce.
  • Nation’s Restaurant News chronicled the ever-increasing interest in drive-thrus.
  • With more QSR infrastructure developments, Restaurant Business described prefabricated units for Quiznos and Taco Del Mar. Now that’s quick!
  • Here’s some great top-line knowledge NPD Group compiled: “While inflation is more moderate for food away-from-home (7.6% versus a year ago) compared to food-at-home (13.1% versus a year ago), the typical away-from-home eating occasion still costs 3.4 times more than in-home food sourced from retail.”

Reduction Through Addition

On August 16, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act. The $369 billion legislation earmarked $20 billion for existing “climate smart” agriculture policies, $14 billion for rural energy (including ethanol fuel production) and $5.3 billion in debt relief for underserved farmers.

  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) claimed the support of “more than 1700 farm groups, companies, environmental advocates, leading economists, local elected officials and municipalities, and trade associations.”
  • Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained to DTN/Progressive Farmer that using existing conservation programs means that “We’re going to be able to hit the ground running. We are very happy with these resources.”
  • Activist organization Environmental Working Group objected, “In the rush to push historic funding out the door, the [USDA] will be pressured to deem practices ‘climate smart’ that do little or nothing to reduce greenhouse gasses.”
  • The Renewable Fuels Association welcomed “the most significant federal commitment to low-carbon biofuels since the Renewable Fuel Standard was expanded by Congress in 2007.”
  • New York Times reporter Alan Rappeport covered the backstory of debt relief that benefits “farmers who have faced discrimination.”
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council suggested that USDA could devote some of its funding to prevent food waste, which globally accounts for 8% of GHG emissions.

Worth Reading

Gimme Your Lunch Money

It’s that time of year when back-to-school prompts discussions about child nutrition and school lunch. NPR’s Ximena Bustillo explained how some schoolchildren are now paying for lunch after two years of Congress-backed free lunches. The free lunch programs were in response to pandemic-related food security concerns. California, however, became the first state to offer free school lunch for all students this year (ABC Los Angeles).

Meat: Saving the Planet

Think that plant-based burger is saving the planet? Atlantic science contributor Bob Holmes explored a growing body of science that suggests a 100%-vegan planet may be more resource-intensive than one where humans consume a reasonable amount of animal protein. “A world entirely without meat would require about one-third more cropland — and, therefore, more energy-intensive fertilizer, pesticides, and tractor fuel — to feed everyone,” said Hannah van Zanten, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Swallowing Blades

Wind turbines get a bad rap for ending up in landfills after their useful life ends. But, as Food Ingredients First pointed out: “While dissolving the thermoplastic resin in an alkaline solution (such as an ordinary baking soda), it released polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), which was then used to produce potassium lactate.” Food-grade potassium lactate is a key ingredient in things like gummy bears. So wind-win.

Engineering a Better Crop

University of Illinois researchers developed a bioengineered soy variety that adapts to changing light conditions more quickly. The Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research told Agri-Pulse, “Results of this magnitude couldn’t come at a more crucial time” for improving on nature’s “surprisingly inefficient 100-plus-step process” of turning light into plant matter.

Not Corning Around

The Hustle documented the rise of “Corn Kid,” an adorable interview with a corn-loving boy. “Currently, #ItsCorn and #CornKid combine for 160M+ views on TikTok.”