The Sad Future of Grocery Shopping

A well-stocked grocery store is a wondrous place. Among the gleaming pyramids of fruit, golden rows of bread, and freezers crammed with ice cream, time and space collapse. A perfectly ripe apple might have been picked a year ago; a cut of beef may have come from an Australian cow. Grocery stores defy seasons and geography to assure shoppers that they can have anything they want, anytime.

For a moment last year, those promises no longer seemed to hold up: The egg case at my local supermarket in New York City was stripped bare. Bird flu had decimated chickens across the country, and the egg supply with it. Americans hoarded whatever eggs they could find, sometimes paying up to $18 a carton.

Bird flu is a unique, extreme case, but food shortages of all kinds keep hitting the grocery store. In recent months, olive oil, cocoa, and orange juice have been in short supply, sending prices skyrocketing. The problem is largely climate change. Olive oil has more than doubled in cost over the past two years because drought and bad weather in the Mediterranean have shriveled olive groves; so many orange trees in Brazil are diseased and weakened by heat and drought that producers have considered making juice from other fruit. Higher temperatures have even made it harder to control the spread of bird flu, contributing to the egg crisis.

These aren’t isolated events. Peanuts, sugar, vanilla, and beef—among other foods—have also been in short supply at points over the past few years. “We are entering an age of disruption,” Evan Fraser, a food-systems expert at the University of Guelph, in Canada, told me. Soon, Americans may no longer be able to count on supermarkets that are perpetually stocked with cheap food. The era of grocery abundance is ending, and a more somber one is taking its place.

The magic of the supermarket is that it hides the inherent variability of agriculture. Every clamshell of arugula might look the same from season to season, even if the harvests differ dramatically. Stable weather is one of the major factors necessary to keep supermarkets well stocked, Fraser said—and its future is not looking good with climate change. This week, extreme heat in California, where the bulk of America’s fresh produce is grown, singed salad greens and bruised berries. At the same time, Hurricane Beryl, an unprecedentedly strong and early storm that previously demolished farms in the Caribbean, flattened corn and sorghum crops in Texas.

Heat, drought, flooding, and other climate effects are making it harder to grow crops, and importing them from elsewhere isn’t always an option. That certain crops are grown in just a few areas in the world has made food especially susceptible to shortages. An ongoing surge in sugar prices in the United States—reflected not just in table sugar but in all sorts of sweets—is being driven by unusually dry conditions in India and Thailand, where much of the global crop is harvested. And in March, a cyclone hit Madagascar, the world’s biggest vanilla producer, threatening about half its harvest and the price of ice cream.  

Climate change is also worsening the conditions that allow pests and disease to thrive. Along with heat- and water-related stress, “it’s very clear, globally, that both are becoming more common,” David Lobell, a professor and the director of Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, told me. Over the past two decades, Florida’s orange and grapefruit production has plummeted more than 75 percent because of citrus greening, an infection spread by tiny bugs that is now also ravaging fruit in Brazil. Other impacts of climate change on agriculture are less visible. It has dried up fields of grass, which farmers rely on to feed their cows. Last year, beef prices hit a near-record high.

What makes climate change so troubling is that it affects so many aspects of the food system. Cargo ships stuck in massive seaside traffic jams—some due to low water levels caused by climate change—are holding up food deliveries. Events such as the war in Ukraine—which has curtailed production of wheat, the country’s major export—“may not have any obvious connection to the climate, but they’re happening on top of a baseline,” Lobell said.

All of this means higher prices and patchy supply. It’s already happening, but you might not have noticed. Inflation has masked some of the price hikes. In some cases, climate-related shortages can be remedied by importing food from places that aren’t affected. For basic commodity crops such as cocoa, wheat, and coffee, price increases may seem minor compared with what’s happening on farms themselves; these goods are typically stockpiled, which means there’s usually a backup supply to draw from if there’s a shortage, softening any upticks in price. The sheer range of products available allows most shortages to be sidestepped painlessly: Shoppers can swap olive oil for canola; juice makers can substitute mandarins for oranges. Food companies also have tricks so that you don’t notice food shortages. In March, Cadbury confirmed that it had downsized one of its chocolate bars because cocoa has become more expensive thanks to poor harvests.

Wealthy nations are generally shielded from the worst effects of crop shortfalls, Lobell said. The food sold in those countries is usually more processed, so the cost of raw ingredients is just one component of the overall price. Poorer nations that depend on unprocessed ingredients are the hardest hit. In the U.S., diminished wheat imports from Ukraine raised flour prices; in Egypt, they halved bread consumption.

But Americans will feel the squeeze eventually as the planet warms. Already, drought-related shortages of avocados in Mexico, which is responsible for 90 percent of the U.S. supply, have meant less guacamole during the Super Bowl. When reserves of commodity goods run out, prices will rise; this is expected to happen with cocoa in the next few years. Perishable goods can’t be stored away in case of emergency. Even the ubiquitous banana isn’t immune to rising prices: Higher temperatures are worsening the spread of a catastrophic fungal disease, and the sophisticated storage chambers that make bananas cheap year-round may not be enough to buffer the coming shortfalls. Of course, poorer Americans will bear the brunt of rising costs.

Certainly, the consequences could be lessened. Crops that get too hot for one area may still grow in fields elsewhere, or even in greenhouses or so-called vertical farms. According to Lobell’s research, bolstering U.S. agriculture against climate change would require up to $434 billion in research and development. That might include technology such as improved machinery, as well as seeds and livestock that are genetically modified to withstand climate stresses.

This is where the new age of grocery stores begins. They aren’t about to become Malthusian—just a little sad. Most likely, “it would be more of the same” of what’s happening now, Lobell said: The produce you’re looking for may be more expensive or out of stock more frequently; the prices of basic foods, such as sugar and flour, won’t be reliably low. Maybe guacamole will become too costly to be a Super Bowl staple, or burger prices will start to resemble those of steak. If extreme heat continues to crush tomato harvests in Australia, Spain, and California, you might even think twice about that bottle of ketchup.

But perhaps the most devastating toll for Americans may be psychological. The idea of the supermarket “was based—and still is based—on endless abundance,” the author Benjamin Lorr writes in The Secret Life of Groceries. All of that bounty has long reassured Americans that food is plentiful and affordable, shaping our approach to eating, cooking, and shopping. It’s the reason you can look up a recipe today and likely have all the ingredients for it tomorrow, regardless of whether it’s July or February. But the grocery is transforming. Shoppers once walked in thinking, What do I want? The more salient question may soon be: What can I have?