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How Climate Change Is Driving Restaurant Prices Up

Changing weather patterns are hurting food production.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While the exact causes of global warming remain a hotly contested issue, the actuality of climate change is undeniable. And while some are no doubt enjoying the unseasonably warm fall temperatures currently reigning over parts of the U.S., changing weather patterns worldwide have some much bigger implications — including driving up food prices.

The nonprofit Business Forward Foundation just released a new study illustrating how severe weather caused by climate change is affecting costs for the restaurant industry. The report notes that "While it is difficult to parse severe weather-related costs from other factors in the supply and demand for U.S. food, severe weather has had a profound impact on some of the America’s most important food-producing regions." Beef prices, currently at an all-time high, shot up by 34 percent from 2010 to 2014, largely due to droughts in the cattle-producing states of California and Texas.

California's widely publicized drought, currently in its fourth year, has also had a major impact on produce prices nationwide: "California grows nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, including 70 percent of the lettuce, 76 percent of the avocados, 90 percent of the grapes, and virtually all of the almonds Americans consume." Produce prices have gone up an average of five percent over the past two years, while tomato prices have surged by 20 percent since the California drought began in 2011. And rising food costs trickle down to diners: "Any severity in climate that affects farmers and crops will also affect prices for restaurateurs and ultimately the consumers as well," says NYC chef/restaurateur and Chopped judge Marc Murphy.

Increased food costs aren't the only way climate change is affecting restaurateurs, either. There's also the issue of food shortages, like 2014's lime shortage that was caused by bad weather (and a subsequent bad harvest) in Mexico. "I worry that extreme weather, like California’s drought, may become the new normal," says Patrick Mulvaney, chef/owner of Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento, Calif. "Our cherry and apricot seasons were early and short this year. We used to think about how to use the produce coming in. Now, I have to make sure it is coming in at all."

The report also compares the current financial impact of rising food prices on restaurants to the potential costs of new Environmental Protection Agency standards intended to help curb the effects of climate change. The EPA's Clean Power Plan, introduced earlier this year, will limit the amount of carbon American power plants are permitted to emit. Once the EPA's new guidelines are fully implemented — which won't be until 2030 — the agency expects US power plant emissions to be 32 percent lower than they were in 2005.

Business Forward spokesperson Rachel Harvey Katz tells Eater this aspect of the report was meant to address opponents to the EPA Clean Power Plan who claim it will hurt the economy by increasing electricity costs for restaurants and other businesses. The power sector will need to make significant upfront investments to transition to lower-carbon electricity sources, and some of that cost will presumably be passed on to electricity consumers. "We wanted to find out, how expensive actually would it be? Would it be harmful for restaurants?" says Katz.

The report found that while rising food prices are currently responsible for $1.63 of an average $20 restaurant meal, restaurants' increased electricity costs associated with the EPA's new rules would account for just 1 cent of that. While the Clean Power Plan will have a major impact on the nation's carbon emissions output — considered to be one of the major contributing factors to global warming — the rest of the world will need to get on board if there's any hope of making a real dent in global warming. In the meantime, expect the price of food to continue to rise: "If temperature and severe weather trends continue as projected, crop yields and livestock health will decrease further," Business Forward's report finds.

Climate change is having plenty of other far-reaching effects on the food and beverage industries, too: Rising water temperatures in New England are contributing to a shift in lobster populations that's ruining some fishermen's livelihoods, and there's a chance the world could run out of coffee by 2080 if the industry doesn't switch to more sustainable methods. One of Belgium's most celebrated beer makers is being forced to scale back production thanks to rising temperatures. Even burrito chain Chipotle has stated that it could consider nixing guacamole or other items from its menu due to rising food costs associated with changing weather patterns.