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Corn and soybean crops are playing an outsized role in the rising cost of food

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Food prices are skyrocketing for lots of reasons, but two crops play an outsized role. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, two commodities touch most of the food Americans eat, and they now cost double what they did two years ago.

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FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: High food prices fall hard on people like Leah Mourning, looking for a deal on pancake mix in a Kansas City grocery store.

LEAH MOURNING: I have a 3-month-old. I'm so glad that I don't have to worry about food for her right now because how the hell are you supposed to feed your kids when pancake mix is 3 - on sale 3.65 when it's normally, like, 2 something?

MORRIS: This pancake mix, like most of what Mourning is shopping for today, contains corn. And Richard Volpe, an agricultural economist at California Polytechnic State University, says that's to be expected. Corn is everywhere.

RICHARD VOLPE: Corn is, in my view, unquestionably the foundational commodity to the U.S. food supply chain. There's nothing more important than corn.

MORRIS: Volpe says that corn is a component, directly or indirectly, in at least three-quarters of the food and beverages here. Well, take the meat counter over here.

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VOLPE: Most of those animals were fed with corn, meaning that the price of corn is going to be directly correlated to the cost of raising and slaughtering and processing those animals.

MORRIS: Milk, cheese, butter, too - dairy cows eat corn. And those eggs you eat come from corn-eating chickens. Up and down the aisles in the middle part of a traditional grocery store - past condiments, sodas, mixes - Volpe says most packages contain at least a little something made with corn.

VOLPE: Corn syrup's the big one, but corn flour, corn meal - it pops up in many, many, many foods, beverages. Nearly everything that's perishable, shelf stable, corn's involved. And that's why corn is so important.

MORRIS: And the price of corn is way up.

SCOTT RICHMAN: That Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken what was already a market that was rising and has just kicked it into overdrive, has driven up prices.

MORRIS: That's Scott Richman, chief economist with the Renewable Fuels Association. He says corn was rising on concerns about growing conditions before Russia attacked Ukraine. The war pushed corn prices into near-record territory. And you can see that outside the grocery store, too, here at the gas pump.

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KEISHA MCGALL: It's hard out here (laughter).

MORRIS: Keisha McGall is buying 1 1/2 gallons of gas. Ten percent of that is ethanol - so more corn.

MCGALL: Too high. You see $7? I ain't got none (laughter).

MORRIS: So corn is just about inescapable. And Bruce Babcock at the University of California, Riverside, says soybeans are huge, too.

BRUCE BABCOCK: Really, corn and soybean oil and soybean meal are everywhere - ubiquitous in our food supply. The only place they're not really in our food supply is fruits and vegetables. But everything else has corn and soybeans.

MORRIS: Soybeans are up even more than corn, and today's crop prices can take months to show up at the grocery store. So the effect of high corn and soybean prices will linger well into next year. But the good news? Corn and soybeans still make up a tiny percentage of the total cost of processed foods. Again, Bruce Babcock.

BABCOCK: The price you pay, that consumers pay at the retail is more having to do with the price of the cost of labor, the cost of shipping, the cost of manufacturing, the profit margins up and down the supply chain.

MORRIS: In fact, for every dollar Americans spend on food, less than a dime goes to farmers. So while high corn and soybean prices drive up the cost of most foods, those dietary staples are still just a sliver of the overall grocery bill. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.